My 5 Favorite Piano Rags

I don’t know about you, but I played a lot of rags growing up. I had a complete Scott Joplin collection and some auxiliary mixed-composer collections, and spent endless hours sightreading until my left hand ached from all the bass leaps. It was always a nice change of pace from Beethoven sonatas. The pieces tended toward predictability, but sometimes there would be one strain that raised my eyebrows and got me excited to play through again. When I had memorized Joplin classics like Maple Leaf Rag, I had some fun go-to pieces to launch into before theatre rehearsals or after church.

Scott Joplin occupies such a huge space in the world of ragtime that many other rag composers of the same period are relegated to a single entry in most collections. He was definitely one of the masters of the form, and the usage of his music in the film The Sting in 1973 created a new wave of interest in ragtime. Around the same time, a quiet renaissance was also happening in the composition world, where mavericks like William Bolcom were exploring new approaches to this quintessentially American genre. My list here includes entries from both old and “new” rags. I’ll admit that there’s a lot in this genre I still haven’t explored. Feel free to share your own favorites, especially if they’re more obscure! At some point I may write a new post with results of my future rag discoveries.

5. Scott Joplin: Pineapple Rag (Pine Apple Rag)

Pure fun. This one was featured in The Sting, and it was also the first rag I seriously studied and mastered. The second strain has one of the most infectious syncopations I’ve heard in any rag. The unusual harmonies of C-flat major moving to E-flat major in the last strain are ear-catching as well.

4. William Albright: Ragtime Turtledove from Grand Sonata in Rag

Albright was a participant in the ragtime renaissance; this piece dates from 1977. The larger sonata is a really cool concept. Who would have attempted a three-movement sonata all in ragtime style? Ragtime Turtledove serves as the slow movement. Yeah, it’s sentimental, but it also feels really authentic, like he’s looking back with fondness on all ragtime composers of the past. Some of the gestures just perfectly nail a nostalgic mood and offering more sophisticated harmony than those previous composers.

3. Scott Joplin: Wall Street Rag

Joplin wrote this in the aftermath of the Panic of 1907, when many American banks declared bankruptcy. This is probably Joplin’s most programmatic rag, with little descriptions below each section:

Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy

Good times coming

Good times have come

Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares

In line with the descriptions, the music moves from a wistful slow drag to increasingly more optimistic grooves. Looking back at the score now, I’m really impressed by how specifically each strain reflects its description, with the last three subtle variations on a hopeful mood. This shows Joplin’s confidence in his medium and his ability to express something unique, and also maybe his appreciation of the power of music to comfort and encourage us in difficult times.

2. Charles “Luckey” Roberts: Pork and Beans

An absolute classic. Performance practice ranges widely, but in the best interpretations it immediately conjures up a scene of a smoky, old-timey bar with a raucous crowd. Every phrase is just so perfectly constructed. It all gets right to business! It’s also one of those rags that sounds better the faster you can play it. I’m leaving you a real treat here with a video of myself fooling around with it back in 2013.

1. William Bolcom: Three Ghost Rags

I couldn’t pick just one of these. All three are excellent and form a really cohesive set, and I’ve treasured them since I was kid. I started playing Graceful Ghost when I was about 12 or 13, and I still regard it as a small masterpiece. The somber key of B-flat minor, the restless harmonic wanderings of the second strain, the heartstring-tugging emotion of the third strain, and the restatement of the opening section that solidifies the overall sentiment of the piece…I’m glad it exists.

The Poltergeist is another animal entirely, a wicked whirlwind that showcases Bolcom’s wit and skill. He uses a super-chromatic language that only occasionally settles into moments of tonal respite, while still nodding to a previous ragtime era by including a section of “stop-time.” Moments of high-pitched hijinks and even an arm cluster help to color the image of a mischievous ghost knocking things over around a house. In a section marked “Insouciantly,” he introduces a little earworm that appears again at the end in a barnstorming climax with stride bass (where he writes “Swing out!”). It’s greatly rewarding on a musical and intellectual level, and a sure crowd-pleaser.

Bolcom referred to Dream Shadows as a “white telephone rag,” referring to films from the 1930’s or 40’s starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. It does have a delightfully old-school, hotel-lobby aesthetic. But hidden beneath these charms are some nightmarish reaches for the left hand. I’ve been trying to convincingly play this piece for over sixteen years, and some of the left hand chords are still a struggle. After the first two pages of enormous chords, you get a slight break, and then the last section is two pages of tenths “unbroken if possible.” Thanks, Bill. But hey, I do love the gentle, quasi-rhapsodic atmosphere of this piece, the delicate contrary-motion counterpoint in the third strain, and the jazzy final section with all the tenths, slowly lulling us to sleep (the last gesture is marked pppp).

Where to find this music:

Both of the Joplin Rags and Pork and Beans are in this collection, along with lots of other hits and rarities. For pure Joplin, try this or this. For Bolcom, try this, this, or this. For Albright, here.

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