Friday, June 11, 2010

Josef Hofmann denounces "rag-time," 1909

In his book, Piano Playing, With Questions Answered, published in 1909 and reprinted by Dover Publications in 1976, the renowned master of the keyboard has this to say in response to the question: Do you believe the playing the modern rag-time piece to be actually hurtful to the student?

"I do, indeed, unless it is done merely for a frolic; though even such a mood might vent itself in better taste. The touch with vulgarity can never be but hurtful, whatever form vulgarity may assume--whether it be literature, a person, or a piece of music. Why share the musical food of those who are, by breeding or circumstance, debarred from anything better? The vulgar impulse which generated rag-time cannot arouse a noble impulse in response any more than "dime novels" can awaken the instincts of gentlemanliness or ladyship. If we watch the street-sweeper we are liable to get dusty. But remember that the dust on the mind and soul is not so easily removed as the dust on our clothes."

Ragtime was in its glory in 1909. It certainly was a very good year for Scott Joplin; published were one of his most experimental and forward looking pieces, Euphonic Sounds, along with the melancholy tango, Solace, one of his most personal. Joseph Lamb, mentored by Joplin, had his second and third rags published by John Stark in 1909: Ethiopia and Excelsior Rag. The same year saw several masterpieces by James Scott, including Grace and Beauty and Great Scott Rag.

Hofmann's "answer" runs the gamut from cultural elitism to barely concealed racism. The pianist/arbiter's stance is a potent reminder of what Joplin and company were up against in those days. For shame, Josef!

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