I had an interesting question. It is common knowledge that ragtime came about as a genre with Scott Joplin. However, I am curious if anyone has any information about Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 and any connection to the works of Scott Joplin, or perhaps any other examples of ragtime-esque pieces from before Joplin's time?

What's interesting to point out:

  • This sonata was written in 1822, five years before Beethoven's death. At this point Beethoven was functionally deaf and could not have heard this music from the local music scene
  • Joplin's first works were published in 1895. This puts the two at more than 70 years difference
  • What elements of the piece specifically evoke Scott Joplin or ragtime to you? – Peter Dec 19 '20 at 6:27
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    Out of curiosity, how did this question come about? I only ask because I swear I've seen it on this site before, but I'm having trouble finding it. – Richard Dec 19 '20 at 16:12
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    I’ve never heard this piece and am shocked at the amount of swing feel it has! This doesn’t resemble ragtime to me at all but it does have a bit of a fast Boogie Woogie feeling in my opinion, especially the chord syncopations in the right hand leading into the third 32nd notes of each grouping. Of course the harmonic and melodic elements are completely different. Still, saying Beethoven invented ragtime (or boogie woogie for that matter) is quite a stretch. – John Belzaguy Dec 19 '20 at 18:55
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    Beethoven's deafness isn't relevant. He could experience new music by reading scores. – Ben Crowell Dec 19 '20 at 23:47
  • There's a lot of responses to go over. @Peter perhaps I should've mentioned boogie-woogie instead of ragtime specifically, but this piece seems to be way ahead of it's time. This type of up-beat syncopated music I associate with the ragtime period. I'm not sure there are examples of earlier music of this style prior to the invention of ragtime – Andrew the Programmer Dec 20 '20 at 1:55

No, I think the similarity to ragtime is coincidental, and I believe the principal evidence is in the way Beethoven notated this passage.

Beethoven has notated this section of the piece in 12/32, which indicates a triple meter - 4 groups of 3 32nd notes.

Today, it is common for pieces with a swing feel to be notated with a triplet feel, but this is not the way Scott Joplin interpreted a swing feel. His sheet music uses mostly eighth notes and sixteenth notes. We know that Joplin performed his music with a light swing feel because he recorded piano rolls that we can still hear. It is nothing like the triplet-swing feel of jazz.

The syncopated rhythms of ragtime are what separated from other genres of music at the time, and Joplin learned them in Black clubs and saloons of the American South and Midwest that he performed in during his teens and twenties.

As friendly word of caution, I would generally advise against taking a small, uncharacteristic fragment of a composer's work and asserting - even in jest - that he "invented" a later genre of music. Scott Joplin was the first prominent Black American composer and his influence on the history of music cannot be overstated, so stating that a White composer actually invented his music 70 years earlier is really out-of-touch with current trends in music thought.

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    "The white racial frame of music theory". I suppose you actually CAN make everything about race. – Willem van Rumpt Dec 19 '20 at 15:45
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    Joplin's music was very much rooted in the Common Practice tradition. He made a notable contribution to the ragtime genre. Because he was Black, his influence IS often overstated. The political reasons for this are understandable and even laudable, but it does him no ultimate service. – Laurence Payne Dec 19 '20 at 15:52
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    @LaurencePayne Joplin is using the tonal and formal language of European classical music, but the characteristics/innovations that separate ragtime from other previous styles are uniquely Black, and to ignore that fact marginalizes the importance of their influence. – Peter Dec 19 '20 at 15:53
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    When I listened to Joplin piano rolls like Elite Syncopations and The Entertainer, I thought Joplin played ragtime completely straight. Granted, Joplin recorded his piano rolls late in his shortened lifetime, and his piano roll of his Magnetic Rag involves an intro with screwed-up rhythms and a curious lack of repeats (my speculation is that the piano roll makers had to edit the repeats out because they were so badly mangled). – Dekkadeci Dec 19 '20 at 16:21
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    I appreciate your analysis. I am not claiming that Beethoven invented the genre outright, but more so proposing (or perhaps picking at) the idea that this piece could've been the starting point from which Joplin developed the ragtime style. The two are not the same thing, hence "invented" is in quotation marks. Dekkadeci in the other comment noted that Joplin's ragtime was partially influence by Chopin's Butterfly Etude, which I also find interesting – Andrew the Programmer Dec 20 '20 at 2:02

As a single composition, probably not. No more than Beethoven invented the rumba-tango style with the third movement of his Piano Concerto #1. However, Scott Joplin had very good classical music training. He was a big fan of Wagner which led him to write both the words and lyrics to his opera Treemonisha.

As an aside, Joplin's father was a steel-driving man (like John Henry) so the father would be working on the railroad for six months each year (the company required six-month layoffs as steel-driving was physically exhausting), leaving Scott, his mother, and his sister at home (with no direct source of income.) Scott's mother made deal with a white family to be a cook, maid, nanny, and general helper in return for the family providing room, board, and teaching reading, math, and music to her kids. A local German emegré and music professor, Julius Weiss, taught Scott for free. He gave him a good German-Conservatory based music education. So Joplin was familiar with classical music literature. He, and the other early ragtime composers, considered themselves to be followers of the great classical tradition, especially as represented by Chopin.

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    I read one source that says that Joplin's ragtime was partially influenced by Chopin's G flat major "Butterfly" etude, especially its left hand. (Might be spurious since I've listened to ragtime that precedes Joplin's, and their left-hand textures are similar to his.) – Dekkadeci Dec 19 '20 at 16:16
  • "He, and the other early ragtime composers, considered themselves to be followers of the great classical tradition, especially as represented by Chopin" This is a very interesting point. From first listen I would have a hard time believing that ragtime was a descendant of the romantic period, but there is probably more to it than surface-level sound. I'll need to look at my Joplin scores more closely – Andrew the Programmer Dec 20 '20 at 2:05
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    Does anyone have any citations to show that Joplin and his contemporaries had a special fondness for Chopin? It seems that a lot of people refer to Joplin as "the Chopin of the rag," but do we know any sources that show Joplin thought of himself this way? – Peter Dec 20 '20 at 4:01

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