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Treemonisha, or Der Freischütz Upside Down

Marcello Piras

A Musical Ancestry Quest

The opera lover listening to Porgy and Bess for the first time cannot help being struck by its opening gesture — a majestic musical curtain riser, as well as a deliberate bow to another work on race relationships, Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. This is far from exceptional. Virtually every opera is related to one or more earlier ones; if it sounds radically original, it is usually because its reference models happen to be obscure. Pergolesi’s La serva padrona has come to us, Tomaso Albinoni’s Pimpinone has not, yet libretto comparison shows how the former descended from the latter.

As we approach an isolated masterpiece like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, the ancestry enigma grows fascinating. Joplin himself seems to come out of nowhere — a slave descendant from a nameless place in the midst of nowhere, grown in a newborn town, far removed from cultural centers, let alone from the glittering bel canto world. How could he gather the required knowledge? How did he become imbued with the genre code and learn the tricks of the craft that make a composer an opera composer?

Not that the score itself offers no clue. On the contrary, there are too many to deal with them all in one essay. A few have been found by earlier scholars. The first was perhaps Gunther Schuller, who made specific orchestration choices after identifying source passages from the standard opera repertoire. Here is an example he told me in conversation, when we were teaching in Palermo (1998). Joplin’s model here is, of all things, Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos. The opening bars from “Good Advice” show a marked resemblance to the low brass fanfare preceding Élizabeth’s air, Toi qui sus le néant des grandeurs de ce monde, with its “bluesy” ambiguity; and Schuller scored them accordingly.

More recently, Theodore Albrecht devoted a study [1] to identifying various sources of Joplin’s opera. In the present essay, conceived before reading his, [2] I shall agree on some of his findings. Hence, these can count as independent confirmations. The main difference between the two studies is the following: I stress that such relationships work at various levels, some superficial (e.g., a quotation), some structural. After all, a composer, before quoting or drawing from single passages, has to plan the whole show. Joplin’s first step was writing down a libretto, thus facing literary choices: What story? On what scale? How many characters? What distribution of events among the acts? And, most important: an opera to say what?

An often echoed opinion suggests that Wagner — another composer who set his own words to music — was Joplin’s role model. Reasons to think so boil down to three facts: (1) Joplin heard Wagner’s music in a documented circumstance; (2) he had a German music teacher; and (3), there is a sacred tree in Die Walküre. Actually, that very incident proves the opposite: in 1901, Joplin was surprised by Wagner’s music, clearly unknown to him. Its serpentine chord sequences, eschewing fixed bar numbers and expected turning points, were light-years distant from his musical language, nor is any convergence perceivable after that date. (Admiration does not imply imitation.) For this same reason — plus another I shall deal with later on — the sacred tree in Die Walküre proves little on the one in Treemonisha, as long as its sacredness remains unexplained. The world out there is full of trees.

The only solid piece of evidence here is the German teacher, Julius Weiss. All that has been known so far on this elusive figure [3] can be summarized in a paragraph. Born in Saxony by 1840–41, perhaps of Jewish ancestry, Weiss probably graduated by 1860 and migrated by the late sixties. About a decade later, a wealthy Texarkana man, Colonel Robert W. Rodgers, hired him as private tutor for his sons and daughters, to whom Weiss taught music, German, and scientific matters. By that time, Weiss met Joplin, then a child, and gave him lessons, unfolding new horizons before his eyes. Weiss was fond of opera and passed such love on to his pupil, who was forever grateful, to the point of financially helping him in his late years, which he seems to have spent in Houston in poverty.

As such information is poured into Joplin biographies, it could suggest the following scenario: as a child, he stumbled upon a German music teacher and fell in love with opera. By the same token, he might meet a French chef and become a cook, or a Japanese coach and embrace ju-jutsu. Here we see how first-rate research may end up being framed into a widely shared ideology which goes unnoticed. The underlying myth is “Individuals are all,” also known as, “There is no such thing as society.” Thus, Joplin’s love of opera was the result of random incidents.

Now, random incidents do occur. However, when placed in context, they take on a meaning.

Context I: German Culture in Nineteenth Century USA

Today, some fifty million Americans boast German ancestry. Immigration started by 1680 and soon gave birth to all-German neighborhoods and the introduction of specific musical usages. The earliest example, albeit perhaps not very typical, is probably Georg Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata community in Pennsylvania, founded in 1732 and soon capable of producing notated a cappella settings of Biblical texts in German.

In eighteenth-century English- and German-speaking Europe, choirs were mainly confined to churches and public ceremonies, thus eliciting a rich production of masses, motets, oratorios, and cantatas. Then, as a result of the widespread secularization that followed the French Revolution and Napoleon, the nineteenth century saw a boom of private choral clubs, spreading in inverse ratio to the shrinking role of church music. The start-up had come from German-speaking musicians, in particular Johann Adam Hiller, who conducted Händel’s Messiah to wide acclaim in 1786, and Carl Fasch, who founded the Berlin Singakademie in 1791, primarily to promote Bach’s music; in 1800, as Fasch passed away, Carl Friedrich Zelter took over. The Singakademie probably originated from an earlier Singethee, a sort of drawing-room social meeting, in which people drank tea, had conversation, and sang.

These trailblazing examples promoted lofty aesthetic ideals — resurrecting past masterpieces, as well as challenging the perceived involution in popular musical tastes. However, they inspired endless imitations at all levels, from excellent professional outfits down to neighborhood glee clubs. German men rushed to gather in associations, often called Singvereine; especially at the onset, it was an all-male affair. They enjoyed the pleasures of collective music-making, indulging in conversation on philosophy and politics, and being replenished with beverages, tea having quickly been replaced by beer. An example, again with Zelter behind it, was the Berlin Liedertafel (1809). Also, in 1800, a municipal Musikakademie was founded in Düsseldorf, triggering a cascade of similar organizations in the Lower Rhine area. There, municipalities secured generous financial support, making it possible to stage huge inter-city festivals, emulating a venerable English formula (the Three Choirs Festival) and soon reaching mammoth sizes. The earliest Sängerfest was perhaps the one held in Hambach, Bavaria, in 1830 or 1832. [4]

What did those people sing? The “back-to-old-masters” goal was never dropped, but the repertoire was expanded and updated; the classics — Bach and Händel, Gluck and Mozart, Beethoven and Cherubini — increasingly shared the bill with Schubert, Weber, Marschner, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. This practice was widespread, and just one German émigré could be enough to found a Singverein anywhere, as Ludwig Landsberg, for instance, did in Rome in 1838. [5]

Also, Jews were involved in the movement right from its start. The earliest members of the Berlin Singakademie include names from both major Jewish musical dynasties, the Mendelssohns and the Itzig/Bartholdys. An uninterrupted record of Jewish presence follows.

Migration to America transplanted the whole movement to the USA. Germans crossed the ocean for many reasons: some pioneers, such as Beissel, sought virgin ground to build utopian communities shaped along their eccentric religious views; others were just peasants in need of land. In the 19th century, land remained a major goal; religious utopia yielded to political utopia.

Texas is a fine example. Friedrich Ernst, the “Father of German Immigration to Texas,” settled in the early 1830s; his lyrical depiction of Austin County prompted a massive flow of migrants. In 1842, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels and other noblemen founded the Verein zum Schutz deutscher Einwanderer in Texas, organizing land distribution to newcomers. Peasants these were for sure, yet as early as 1834 one Robert Justus Kleber imported a piano and some music books to Harrisburg (now part of Houston); notated music practice soon took a foothold. [6]

Much the same happened in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or the St. Louis, Missouri area. Phillip Matthias Wohlseiffer founded the first German-American choral society, the Philadelphia Männerchor, in 1835; the following year he founded the Baltimore Liederkranz. Similar associations, soon hosting women as well, appeared in many cities and towns. The natural next step was a Sängerfest, held in March 1846, when Wohlseiffer’s two organizations paid each other visit. A replica of the German model had been built in New England in a mere eleven years.

Texas followed the same pattern as well. First, informal vocal groups; then a Singverein, probably in San Antonio, soon emulated in other cities; and finally, in 1853, the San Antonio, New Braunfels, Austin, and Houston choirs joined for a Sängerfest and founded an association of associations, the Texas State Sängerbund.

Given the distances, the process never coalesced into a unified national federation. Rather, several local circuits had simultaneous origin and growth. The Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund was born in Cincinnati in 1849; New England had its own Nordöstlischer Sängerbund from 1850. As a result, any mid-century German immigrant could find employment, or spend some leisure time, as teacher, singer, vocal coach, accompanist, conductor, transcriber, or composer in many American cities, and even jump from circuit to circuit. This is what Julius Weiss was to do — with a twist.

Of course, a difference between German and German-American choral activity was, the latter was also meant to reinforce a sense of national identity abroad. Most Romantic art carries national overtones, and German music was second to none in that respect. In particular, Carl Maria von Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz, the “national German opera” par excellence, with its folk-tale plot, folk characters and beliefs, folk dances and choirs, folk scenarios and costumes, must have struck a deep chord in many hearts. Its first performance in the USA took place, in English, at New York’s Park Theater, on March 2, 1825, only four years after Weber had conducted its première in Berlin. Over the years, performances of the entire opera, or parts thereof, grew frequent in the USA, in both English and German.

The 1848–49 revolution, and the ensuing repression, brought another element into the scene. Students and intellectuals involved in the riots escaped abroad. Many sported progressive, even Socialist ideas. Karl Marx himself was one of them, except that he went to London, probably drawn to the British Library. Others headed to America, and their ideas of justice, equality, and social change swept the German communities. They are usually referred to as the Achtundvierziger (“Forty-Eighters”). [7] Let us name a few.

Adolph Douai (1819–1888), founder of the San Antonio Zeitung and editor of the Boston Demokrat, was a free thinker and a revolutionary, vigorously championing abolition, equality, and education for everybody as a mean to achieve social progress. An early member of the Socialist Labor Party of America, he was also a pioneer of the Kindergarten movement. Edgar von Westphalen (1819–1890) was Karl Marx’s brother-in-law; early in 1848 he went to Texas to help establish Communist settlements, such as the five Lateinische Kolonien (“Latin Settlements,” as people loved to have conversation in Latin): Bettina (named after Beethoven’s friend, Bettina Brentano von Arnim), Latium, Millheim, Sisterdale, and Tusculum. Westphalen then returned to Europe; in 1865 he spent few months at Marx’s home in London. Ferdinand Ludwig Herff, Hermann Spiess, and Gustav Schleicher founded the Gesellschaft der Vierziger (“The Society of the Forty”) also known as the Freidenker, the Darmstädter, or the Socialistic Colony and Society, which planned to create a community in Wisconsin and then opted for Texas. In 1878, Schleicher, by then turned into an old skeptical Republican senator, visited Texarkana; [8] Scott Joplin was eleven. Even the Frenchman Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), who coined the word “Communism,” tried to found his early-Christian-inspired Icarian community in Denton County, five counties west of Texarkana. As this turned impossible, he tried again in Nauvoo, Illinois. He died in St. Louis, Missouri.

These and other utopians who founded their — often short-lived — communes in Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, held divergent views on many details, but shared an unshakable faith in the positive nature of humankind, in education as a tool to forge a better society, and in equality of all people, women included (albeit the last point was unevenly addressed). This is also the political vision Joplin expressed in Treemonisha, a work that can be properly labeled a “Socialist opera.”

Context II: Texarkana

Texarkana, too, is in Texas, or more accurately, half of it is (the rest is in Arkansas). Yet it is located at the extreme northeastern corner of the state, hundreds of miles away from the Central-Southern area hosting the German communities. In fact, as far as it is known, neither did it have a Singverein of its own, nor was it part of the Texas State Sängerbund circuit.

At least three contrasting local legends report that the Bowie County area on which it grew was referred to as “Texarkana” many years before anything was built. [9] The county was probably settled by 1820 and was given its borders in 1846. It was a rural, low-density area, with people raising livestock and producing cotton, corn, and timber. Before the war, its white inhabitants were mostly Southerners, slaves slightly outnumbering them. Of course they massively voted for Secession and fought for it. War, Emancipation, and the ensuing instability led many ex-slaveowners to bankrupt, unleashing widespread rage. The slim Federal garrison — a dozen people — sent in 1867 could do little to ensure legality; the infamous Cullen Baker, “the Swamp Fox of the Sulphur,” could rob and kill, probably sheltered for months by those who saw him as a vindicator. Klan-like activities were also registered. [10] Much the same also holds true about Cass County, south of Bowie, where Joplin’s family was living in 1870.

Then, enter the railroad. Its construction, suspended because of warfare, was resumed soon after and became a daily subject in Texas newspapers. Trains were an astonishing step forward over horse, ship, or steamboat. Coastal towns, such as Galveston, saw it as a safer alternative to seafaring, as it would reach Northern cities in any weather. Cities in the interior saw the station as a waterfront with no sea — a powerful source of work and business multiplier. The Reconstruction governments saw the train as a political unifier. Railroad cartographers selected an ideal site on the Texas-Arkansas state border, and Texarkana grew around it. [11] It was a station before being a city.

The locality was well chosen, being strategically placed, as it was, at the intersection of both East-West and North-South commercial routes, as the Caddo natives knew well. It was more than just connected to the German communities — it connected the rest of the nation to them. Newspapers issuing daily timetables, such as the Fort Worth Gazette, soon added the new stop.

Although some families were already living in the surroundings, Texarkana was officially born on December 8, 1873, when a George M. Clark opened a drug and grocery store cum whisky, and the Texas and Pacific Railroad began selling lots. [12] The combination of affordable land and up-to-date connections proved irresistible. Investors swarmed from all parts, and, almost overnight, Texarkana grew in both size and wealth. A paradoxical creature had materialized — a rich city in the middle of an impoverished countryside.

There was another deeper divide as well. The newcomers were ethnically much more diverse than the old county settlers, and carried no memories of local racial tensions. Some were wholeheartedly for integration, having personally suffered social injustice in their homelands. For instance, the Jewish community soon grew numerous; in 1879, a newspaper editor, Charles Wessolowsky, counted ten families (ca. seventy-five people) in town, who happened to have a synagogue but no rabbi. Most of them were born in Austria, Poland, and Russia; their last names were: Erber, Goldberg, Davidson, Hoffman, Kosminsky, Heilbron, Marx, Rosenberg, Levy, and Deutschmann. The last one was the very same Joseph Deutschmann who lived with Julius Weiss at Colonel Rodgers’ home. A Pole who worked in real estate, he also helped develop water, gas, and streetcar companies and, in 1885, became president of the Texarkana Hebrew Benevolent Association. [13]

In late 1874, a flood swept the black neighborhood. Deutschmann then rebuilt it and also constructed what was called Deutschmann’s Canal, to improve drainage. Its efficiency remains unclear though. The Houston Daily Post of January 15, 1899 reports:

TEXARKANA, Texas, January 13. The heavy rains that have visited this section recently have caused numerous washouts on the several railroads centering here.... The Negro portion of town known as “Swampoodle” is almost entirely inundated. Several shanties have been carried away by the water and much damage has been done. [14]

Did the Joplins live in Swampoodle? Researchers know that in 1880 their house was located on 618 Hazel Street. We can give it a look.

By 1888, the noted German viewmaker, Henry Wellge (1850–1917), drew a bird’s-eye view of Texarkana, now at the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. It is painstakingly accurate. Here is how the 600 blocks on the two sides of Hazel Street, between Sixth and Seventh, appeared to him:

Map of Texarkana

Figure 1. Henry Wellge (1850–1917), Perspective Map of Texarkana. ca. 1888. Detail of the 600 blocks on the two sides of Hazel Street. [15]

Joplin came from the plantations around Linden, like T-Bone Walker fifty years later. The musical gulf between a cultivated opera composer and a rural blues singer-guitarist can be traced not only to Texarkana’s peculiar history, but also to Deutschmann’s progressive views. Without his vision, it is doubtful that freedmen could afford to relocate from country log cabins to more dignified city lodgings.

Context III: Julius’s Vice

Much has been said, mostly as speculation, about Joplin’s teacher, especially after Albrecht’s essay singlehandedly drew him out of his earlier legendary status. Much remains to be ascertained though. For instance, Albrecht could find nothing on Julius Weiss’s life in Saxony and speculated that he might have expatriated in 1866, to escape the Austro-Prussian war. Also, he deemed likely that Weiss “could also have entered the United States at New Orleans, a port through which many Germans immigrated.” [16] Perusal of immigrant lists on the website showed that America was flooded with people named Julius Weiss, much to Joplin scholars’ dismay, yet none of those who landed in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia fits known data. Only one passenger fits, and he landed in New Orleans, as Albrecht had figured out, but in 1870 — a timely move in any case, with the Franco-Prussian War impending. Perhaps the man had served in the Saxon army in 1866 and decided that a taste of it was enough. The question remains unanswered, for such name recurs on lists of German soldiers as well.

Be that as it may, one Julius Weiss sailed from Bremen by April 1870 on the Frankfurt, which made stops at Le Havre and Havana before reaching New Orleans on May 9. He is described as a 28-year-old male, laborer, from Prussia. In the 1880 Census, Weiss was recorded as being 39 on June 3. [17] A birthdate between late April and early June 1841 would match both documents.

Provenance is also in agreement. In the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, Saxony sided with Austria, lost, and was annexed to the newborn Norddeutscher Bund (North German Confederation), an entity that was to exist for just five years, as an intermediate step toward Germany’s unification under Kaiser Wilhelm. Hence, in 1870 Weiss was a citizen of — and was sailing from — the Norddeutscher Bund. This associated twenty-two states but was dominated by Prussia in all respects (surface, inhabitants, gross income, number of Parliament seats, army), thus, on the narrow column of a form, it was routinely indicated as “Prussia.” In the 1880 Census, Weiss could have said “Germany,” by now a valid tag, but was probably asked: “In which country were you born?,” and answered accordingly. As for the portmanteau “Laborer” entry, it may simply mean that he was emigrating to find a job; nothing is implied on his class status. See the line of passenger [1]59, second from below; surname is spelled Weiß.

1870 passenger list

Figure 2. List of passengers on the Frankfurt; detail including Julius Weiss’s name. 1870. [18]

As it often happened with immigrants, the destination port was no choice; ships just headed there. There is no evidence on the locality where Weiss lived in 1870–73. Then, one can choose among the multiple possibilities that newpaper citations offer. As ubiquity is ruled out and we cling to musically significant profiles, our man happens to resurface, of all places, in Port Jervis, Orange County, New York — a logical nearby place for somebody landing at New York, not in Louisiana. Did he soon sail from New Orleans up North, thus dodging the 1870 Census? But then, why did he not wait in Bremen for the next German ship heading to New York? Was he in a hurry? We do not know.

A small town on the Delaware River, Port Jervis hosted an ancient German community which, not surprisingly, had sported a Männerchor since 1867. The first of a long string of references to Julius Weiss in the local newspaper, the Evening Gazette, seems to be the one from April 23, 1874: “Mr. Weiss last Monday opened the school in the Lutheran church, for the German Lutheran children of this place.” [19] April 20 seems an odd date to open a school, unless it was brand new. So was the Singverein announced on September 5: [20]

The German residents of this village have organized a new singing society. It is called the Concordia, and meets in Germania Hotel. Its officers are, President, Leopold Fuerth; Vice President, H. Schroeder; Sec’y, F. Conzelman; Treas., Frank Hadrich, with Frank Weiss and Prof. Stuebinger, musical directors. [21]

The anonymous journalist wrote “Frank” Weiss in error, for this was the name of an older resident in town, but meant Julius, as it grows clear from later articles; again, this suggests that such name was new in town. Notice the presence of Prof. Stübinger at his side; more on him later.

On November 28, we can read a lengthy account of the activities of this second German vocal group in Port Jervis. It allows us a vivid glimpse on its proceedings.

“Concordia” is the name of an association lately formed in this village. It is composed of the most select of the Jewish and German residents of Port Jervis; is properly and well officered, has good and wise rules for its government, and is organized for the pleasure and social advancement of its members. They meet with their ladies every Wednesday evening. The early portion of the evening is devoted to music, vocal and instrumental, to speaking and exercise in oratory and reading from the works of eminent authors, to private theatricals, etc. The later portion of the evening is devoted to dancing.
The “Concordia” has been organized about 4 months and has now about 30 members. The officers are: Leopold Fuerth, President; Henry Schroeder, Vice President; F. Conzelman, Recording Secretary; P. Kalmus, Financial Secretary; Frank Hadrich, Treasurer; Julius Weiss, Musical Director. The dues are 25 cents a month, which go to pay for music, rent, etc. The society usually meets Sunday evenings for rehearsal, and the like. None but members and invited guests are allowed to be present.
The Concordia gave a reception and entertainment Thanksgiving night, and through the courtesy of the President and members of the association the representatives of the press of this village were invited to be present and participate in the festivities. Availing themselves of the opportunity Mr. C. St. John, Jr., editor, and Mr. Ed. Botsford, reporter on the Union, Prof. E. G. Fowler, of the Associated Press, and a representative of the GAZETTE establishment, attended the reception. The rooms were opened at 8 o’clock, at which time members and their lady friends began to arrive. Singing and instrumental music began. Mrs. Fuerth and Mrs. Silverstone played a two-handed [sic] piece on the piano, and later in the evening Mrs. Silverstone, who has a rich, clear voice, and is a fine singer, sang the “Merry Birds.” Miss Jenett Mertz also sang a pretty piece, executing it nicely. Prof. Fowler sang three songs, and his rich tenor voice sounded unusually clear and good. The professor certainly is an excellent singer. Mr. Louis Hensel, senior, repeated the first act in Faust, making a marked impression upon the audience. Mr. Hensel is really a clever actor, and the members of Concordia no doubt congratulated themselves that they have one so able among them. Prof. Stuebinger and Robert and William Schroeder aided with music at the piano. At the early part of the evening the latter declaimed two pieces from Hans Brenzman, a work in “Pennsylvania Dutch.” He did it creditably and elicited applause. Editor St. John wanted to sing a song. He gravely told the President that he had been under training in New York and had cultivated his voice so that it was remarkably musical. He offered to sing “Carry the News to Mary,” “Over the River to Charley,” “Jordan Is a Hard Head to Travel,” or “Pop Goes the Weasel.“ The musicians failing to urge the ambitious young man to test his musical abilities, he took offence and made faces at the Italian harpist. After repeating in an undertone the couplet, “This world is all a fleeting show, For man’s illusion given,” he silently sat down in a corner and waited for supper.
About 11 o’clock a collation was spread upon the tables, of which all partook heartily. After collation, the room was quickly cleared, and dancing followed. This was continued until after 3 o’clock in the morning, when all took their departure, highly gratified with the manner in which Concordia observed Thanksgiving Day. We hope the association will have many as pleasant gatherings. [22]

This clipping reveals that Joplin’s teacher totally belonged in the Singverein world. There, gentlemen — and sometimes ladies — peacefully gathered and had a good time playing, singing, listening, dancing, eating, and drinking. This is very much the ideal well-mannered environment Joplin evoked in The Ragtime Dance, the earliest known statement of his life philosophy. Also, in such gatherings, music coexisted with prose and poetry, from the high seriousness of drama down to comedy routines. Joplin, too, was to combine music, poetry, recitation, and drinks, not only in his proto-rap sequence from Pine Apple Rag Song, but already in his performances with the Texas Medley Quartette, as reported from New York in the Syracuse Daily Journal, September 13, 1894:

A musical and literary entertainment will be given by the Texas Medley quartet and the ladies of the Bethany Baptist church at the church in East Washington street this evening. After the concert refreshments will be served. [23]

In a town of few thousand souls, we find the same people collaborating to both organizations. Here is again the Evening Gazette, December 1, 1874:

The German Mannerchor, an organization well and favorably known in this village, is now giving a series of comedies and theatrical plays at their fine rooms in Atlantic Hall. Last night the comedy of “The Wedding Tour,” in two acts, was well represented. The play is a German comedy representing the life of a professor of foreign and classic languages, who in some manner stumbles into the state of matrimony, and some of the mistakes he made thereafter.... The comedy was unquestionably well acted, and elicited frequent applause from the large German audience present. A good orchestra, composed of the following-named gentlemen, furnished music at proper intervals: Prof. S. Stuebinger, Prof. Julius Weiss, Mr. Adam Fetz, Mr. Jacob Gengnagle, and Master George Angermyer [sic]. At the close of this acting, the room was quickly cleared, and dancing followed.
The next play of the Mannerchor will take place in about 3 weeks, at their hall. The play is entitled: “Enlenspiegel.” [sic] He was an old German highwayman, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, and did many other eccentric things.... [24]

Apparently, the journalist had never heard of Till Eulenspiegel, the German prankster of folktales who was soon to be made famous musically in an 1895 Richard Strauss tone poem. Less apparent is whether such depiction, more suited to Robin Hood than to Till, was traceable to what the Männerchor members had said, or what was understood of their words, or the adaptation of the text they had concocted, or a mix thereof.

Over the years, Weiss gained stature and respect in the Port Jervis community. On July 23, 1877 he is reported to have taken part, the day before, at the funeral of a Mr. Jacob Pobe, buried with Odd Fellows honors.

....As the remains were being borne up the stairway into the hall the plaintive notes of a funeral dirge from Mendelssohn were heard from the organ. The music for the occasion was under the direction of the German Mannerchor, led by Prof. Julius Weiss, its accomplished leader, with organ accompaniment, and was most impressively rendered. Rev. H. M. Voorhees read a few appropriate passages of scripture, and the choir intoned the beautiful hymn “Da Unten ist frieden” with fine effect.
Rev. H. B. Kuhn, pastor of the Lutheran church, which the family of the deceased attended, preached a very interesting sermon from Deuteronomy 32d chapter and 39th verse.... After the sermon the reverend gentleman gave a brief history of the deceased and paid a fitting tribute to his memory. Many in the audience were moved to tears. Another hymn was then rendered by the choir, — “Suess und ruhig ist der Schlummer” — when the Rev. H. M. Voorhees made an appropriate address.... [25]

Thus, in 1877 Weiss, not Stübinger, was the choirmaster. Then, on August 2 — while “Mr. Julius Weiss, the German teacher, is out of town rusticating” till August 14 — Till Eulenspiegel reappears in a most unexpected form. The ominous heading reads “Behind Prison Bars:”

Simon Rudolph Stuebinger, the notorious musical fraud, whose reputation as such was made clearly manifest in a little over a year’s sojourn in Port Jervis and vicinity some time since, has at last met the rogue’s just fate.
We learn from the New-Yorker Nachrichten aus Deutschland und der Sweiz [sic] of a recent date that Stuebinger was sentenced in one of the courts in the city of Vienna, Austria, during the early part of last month, to three years’ incarceration in a German prison for numerous swindling and other operations perpetrated since he left this country nearly two years ago.
The account states that Stuebinger was the son of a schoolmaster in Beitlau [sic — no such name appears on maps], near Kulmbach, in Bavaria, and that at the age of seventeen he became a school-teacher in Fishback [sic] and other towns in Germany.
In 1867 he married into a family in good circumstances, receiving with his wife the sum of $900. He squandered this money, grew tired of his wife, and deserting her served for a time in the Franco-Prussian war as a hospital steward.
At Orleans Stuebinger distinguished himself in the role of a soldier, for which he received the medal of the Iron Cross. At the close of the bloody war he returned to Bavaria, and finding little or nothing to employ himself at, entered upon a bad course of life. He was arrested for being concerned in a swindling operation and was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment therefor. He served a few months of the sentence, and was released on condition that he would depart the country on the promise never to return to his native land.
In the spring of 1874, or thereabouts, Simon Rudolph Stuebinger arrived in this country, landing in New York harbor, and came directly to this village, where his brother William then resided. He was a person of gentlemanly address and manners, and by profession a teacher of both vocal and instrumental music. To a few of his patrons he stated that he was a bachelor and came direct from Germany to Port Jervis; to others he made known as a fact that he had a wife and four children living in Bavaria, whom he expected to join him as soon as he became established here; and still to others that his wife was living in New York city, whom he visited occasionally as his business engagements would permit. These different statements aroused the suspicions of not a few of his patrons, and when called upon for an explanation he was unable to give even a plausible excuse for his inaccuracies, and endeavored to lead them into the belief that he had been misunderstood, owing to his imperfect knowledge of our language.
During his stay in our midst Prof. S. R. Stuebinger (as he styled himself) claimed to have received the agency for the sale of several makes of first-class pianos and organs in the nearest cities, and succeeded in disposing of a number of instruments in this village and vicinity from the manufactories of Chickering & Son and Knabe & Co. of New York, and Guild, Church & Co. of Boston. He also made purchases of Demorest & Burr of Newburgh, and in nearly every instance swindled the piano men.
Several cases of litigation growing out of the complications have been concluded but a short time, the United States Express Company having been concerned in two or more of the suits brought about by the rascality of this same Stuebinger. These facts are well known to nearly every reader of THE GAZETTE as having been published shortly after the disappearance of this musical genius and prince of rascals from our midst.
As is generally supposed, “Prof.” Stuebinger fled to Europe, and after a two years’ absence from his native country he turned up at Leipsic [sic] in the role of an American physician and surgeon, having in his possession a diploma from a medical college in Lexington to that effect. On the strength of his document he obtained the position of regimental surgeon in the Servian [sic] army. In Leipsic he followed a course of systematic swindling, beating his tailor out of over two hundred marks (some $50), a book concern of a smaller sum, and a dealer in surgical instruments of over $35.
He then went to Eisleben, a city in Saxony, and while there became acquainted with a family named Richter, with whom, on the strength of his plausible stories, he soon became ingratiated in their good favor. He represented himself as the son of a wealthy American farmer, and making love to the only daughter, married her after a short courtship. The elder Richter was in a very short time defrauded by his hopeful son-in-law of some $350, which, it is alleged, he wasted in extravagation and dissipation, when he summarily abandoned his wife and left for parts unknown. Before leaving Eisleben, however, he swindled a merchant out of $50 for camp furniture, a druggist of some $90, besides numerous other sums of a smaller nature.
Stuebinger returned to Leipsic, where he remained but a short time, and afterwards went to Vienna. He put on military airs there and sojourned at the best hotel in the city. He attired himself in the brilliant uniform of a staff officer in the Servian army under some high toned alias, und was feted and courted by the frequenters of the hotel and the nobility of the locality. But unfortunately he relapsed into the old habits of swindling, cheating and defrauding almost everybody with a shrewdness worthy of a better cause. He was at last arrested and lodged in prison.
Before the court Stuebinger claimed that he was an American citizen, a man of honor and a physician of good standing and [illegible], and produced a diploma issued out of Lexington college (Kentucky?), stating that for it he had paid the sum of $80 in America, and on its strength had served as a surgeon in the Servian army, being promoted to Chief Surgeon in the Department for skill in his profession.
Upon a careful inspection of the diploma by experts it was pronounced a forgery, and it is said that the culprit was forced to admit that he had prepared the document with his own hands. By a series of sharp questionings much of Stuebinger’s past life was laid bare to the court.
In the course of the trial the Judge asked him how he dared to sue for the hand of the Richter girl in Eisleben, when he was already a married man? Stuebinger vaguely replied that he was a Protestant.
“Protestant or no Protestant,” remarked the man of law, “you had no right to desert your first wife and marry another without obtaining a divorce, provided you had good and substantial grounds for so doing.”
Stuebinger replied that he had “already obtained a divorce from that woman in America for the sum of $80.” “Do you get everything in America — diplomas, divorces and all — for $80 and the asking?” propounded the Judge, with a wise shake of the head.
Stuebinger was thereupon sentenced for the term of three years to hard labor for his many acts of villainy, with the stern mandate that he should leave the country upon the expiration of his term of imprisonment, under the severe punishment which the law would inflict in case the order were violated. [26]

Notice the recurring pattern. Each time, Stübinger introduced himself in a new environment as a gentleman, whose good manners, refined culture, and social status (music professor, surgeon, officer) won his victims’ confidence, and then hit. But what has all this to do with our story?

On September 13, the Evening Gazette coldly reports: “Mr. Sauer of New York takes the place of Julius Weiss as teacher of the German school in this village.” [27] September 1877 exactly fits the preferred time window Albrecht indicated [28] for Weiss to start teaching in Texarkana. It is a good month to begin classes, and makes for a smooth relocation from Port Jervis — a long, but not impossible train ride. Also, this wipes out that elusive sojourn in St. Louis, Missouri, Albrecht hypothesized but could not document. There, archival digging only came up with another Julius Weiss, a dealer in ladies’ underwear.

Now, to support such theory, we should assume that Weiss left not just the German school, but Port Jervis. Did he? On December 1, the following advertisement appears in the Evening Gazette:

the German teacher, informs the citizens of Port Jervis and vicinity that he is fully prepared to receive pupils for instruction on the Piano, Organ, Singing and the German language.
As leader of the Mannerchor Orchestra he will furnish music for
at reasonable prices. For information call at residence in First National Bank building, corner Ball and Sussex streets, Port Jervis. [29]

Professor Sauer was replacing Weiss in all roles. Clearly, the latter had left. But then, it is hard to explain why on September 11, two days before that first announcement, the Evening Gazette had:

The building on Front street lately occupied by the Conner Brothers as a market is being repaired. It is soon to be occupied by Julius Weiss as a grocery store and market. [30]

This is utter nonsense. Here, two scenarios are possible. One is, another slip of the journalist’s pen, this time writing “Julius” but meaning “Frank Weiss.” Otherwise, the story is suspect. How could Julius Weiss be planning to open a store two days before he left?

Joplin scholars have long loved this man for his noble, almost parental mentoring of his young pupil beyond racial barriers and prejudice. Little is known of Weiss. No portrait exists and we can imagine him as we like, and would much prefer to see him as a philanthropist. But alas, he was a scammer.

By September 11, 1877, Julius Weiss left Port Jervis — and lots of troubled people behind. This third reincarnation of Till Eulenspiegel is confirmed by a judicial notice, published at least six times, in identical format, in the Evening Gazette of February 12, 19, 21, and 26, and March 5 and 19, 1878:

NOTICE TO CREDITORS. — NOTICE is hereby given, pursuant to an order of the County Judge of Orange county, to all persons having claims against Julius Weiss, of the town of Deerpark, who made an assignment for the benefit of his creditors, to present the same with the vouchers thereof to the undersigned assignee of the goods, chattels, and effects of said Julius Weiss, at the office of Allerton & Mills at Port Jervis, Orange county, New York, on or before the 27th day of March, 1878.
FRANK HADRICH, Assignee. [31]

An identical text follows, concerning a Christian Geisenheimer, probably suspect of being an accomplice. However, he must have been either acquitted or forgiven, for on August 21, 1880, he was among the Männerchor members listed by the Evening Gazette as performing in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. [32]

Thus, Weiss adopted Stübinger’s pattern — he behaved like a gentleman, won people’s trust, swindled them, and left. He displayed much greater sophistication though. Stübinger was a naïve thief, who left much evidence behind, had no prompt answer when interrogated, and ended up jailed at least twice. To date, nothing suggests that Weiss was ever called to respond to his forgeries. People just went to a judge and complained. Justice was largely ineffective in nineteenth-century USA, when the nation was sparsely populated, towns were distant and poorly connected. Anybody could declare anything on any document, and a sense of centralized power was about as strong as in a John Wayne movie. Ironically, the above notice says that Weiss had come to Port Jervis from — or had lived in — the adjacent town of Deerpark, New York, on the aptly named Neversink River.

The story ends with the Evening Gazette of January 19, 1878 issuing a melancholy paragraph as a consolation for the twice seduced-and-abandoned Singverein:

One of the substantial organizations of Port Jervis is the German Mannerchor, which last night celebrated its eleventh anniversary. There is probably no people so sincerely friendly, so good-natured, and so entirely harmonious, as the Germans. Whatever is done seems to be considered right, and no disturbances ever mar the pleasure of their gatherings. The Port Jervis Mannerchor numbers among its members most of our best German residents. We hope it will live to celebrate anniversaries as long as it is useful for societies to exist. [33]

Some readers may still trying to convince themselves that the Till Eulenspiegel of Port Jervis is not the Julius Weiss we have known. But have we ever known him? All info we have comes from the 1880 census, plus belated family memories: no arrival and departure dates. It is generally assumed that, shortly after Rodgers died (1884) and his family sold his three sawmills to survive, Weiss quit as well. Not so. Surprisingly, Weiss spent many years and did many things in Texarkana, as we learn from the New York Herald, September 16, 1889:

TEXARKANA, Ark., Sept. 15, 1889. — J. Weiss, who has for ten years been a resident here as a music teacher, then a school keeper, pawnbroker and jeweller, and lately president of the Texarkana Savings Bank, but more recently a large stockholder in the H. S. Matthews Lumber Company, the largest concern of the sort hereabouts, has decamped, going no one knows where, carrying with him, it is alleged, funds of other parties estimated all the way from $30,000 to $50,000. [34]

For those who might suggest that “J. Weiss,” a music teacher, could instead be named John, Jack, or Joe, the Fort Worth Gazette of September 14, 1889 removes all doubt.

Special to the Gazette.
TEXARKANA, TEX., Sept. 13. — Mrs. Caroline Marx, by her attorneys, sued out an attachment yesterday against Julius Weiss of this city in the district court on a debt of $2000 borrowed money. Mr. Weiss is a prominent capitalist of this city and was lately the president and manager of the Savings Bank of Texarkana. The plaintiff and her attorneys are in a position to know Mr. Weiss’s business, and as they allege in their petition and affidavit “that the defendant secretes himself so that the ordinary process of the law cannot be served upon him,” the rumor is in circulation that he has left the country. His liabilities, if any, are unknown. Other attachments have been run to-day, and the street are full of wild rumors concerning the movements of Weiss and the amount of his liabilities. A short while since he bought an interest in the Matthews lumber company, one of the largest mill plants in this section, and became one of its officers. His non-appearance has alarmed the creditors of that company, and a number of attachments have been sued out to-day. Among them are L. C. Demorse of this city, $277; William Beehan, $8704; R. H. Eyler, $1566; C. E. Whitner, $300. It is supposed that a large number of attachments will be added, as it is understood Leon and H. Blum of Galveston and other foreign creditors have large interests in the mill. [35]

Till Eulenspiegel’s fourth reincarnation was a much bigger coup than the third one. This had been shyly hinted at on a local bulletin, selling perhaps in the low hundreds. The new one was bouncing up and down the nation. As far north as Pennsylvania, the Bradford Era of September 16 has:

TEXARKANA, Ark., Sept. 15. — Prof. J. Weiss, one of the oldest and wealthiest citizens of Texarkana, late president and manager of the Texarkana Savings Bank, is missing with $37,000 of other people’s money. He was a man of examplary habits and his escapade causes the greatest surprise. [36]

The final remark would have probably fit a widespread feeling in Port Jervis, eleven years earlier. The New York Times, Pittsburg Dispatch, St. Paul Daily Globe, and Omaha Daily Bee of September 16, as well as the Indiana Progress of September 25, have the same news as the Herald, plus the following comment:

Mr. Weiss was not looked upon as a man of means himself, but being of fine address and an excellent accountant, and of exceptionally good habits, he was readily trusted by those with whom he came in contact. His marriage in the wealthy and influential Blum family at Galveston several months ago served greatly to strenghten public confidence in him, and the announcement that he had proved a defaulter falls, consequently, with greater weight. [37]

Musicologists will surely agree.

As for Weiss being married, no proof has emerged. The Galveston Daily News, on August 23, soberly informed: “J. Weiss of Texarkana is in the city.” [38] He had been signaled there on March 26, 1888 as well — and that is all. [39] My doubts on such marriage will be made clear in a moment.

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette, always ahead of competitors, has more on September 17:

Special to the Gazette.
TEXARKANA, TEX., Sept. 16. — Liabilities continue to develop against Julius Weiss, the alleged absconding banker. On the Arkansas side, a receiver was appointed who was saved the responsibility of his position as there was nothing to receive.
On the petition of L. & H. Blum of Galveston, the affairs of the Matthews lumber company were placed in the hands of a receiver today. Judge Shepperd, who is now holding district court at Linden, appointed W. L. Whitaker of this city as receiver and the appointee took possession this evening. Creditors continue to pour in but there is hope that the company will pay a handsome dividend. [40]

Later in the same issue we read:

Suits instituted today in the district court were: Mary Hardin vs. the Catholic Knights of America, for $2000; Texarkana National Bank vs. J. Weiss, $1100; J. C. Whitner vs. J. Weiss, $1265. [41]

The Omaha Daily Bee of September 21 takes it more lightheartedly:

It is a long weary way from Arkansas to Canada at this season of the year, but J. Weiss, of Texarkana, is supposed to have recently made the trip. He had the foresight to prepare himself for the cold of the northern winter, and lined his pockets with fifty thousand dollars of other people’s money. [42]

Such a not-so-underground railroad to Canada must have been common guess — and a common choice. But did Weiss really go up North? As people grow old, they show a marked tendency to relocate toward sunnier climates. Albrecht had gleaned fragmentary but convincing data suggesting that Weiss spent five years in Houston, between 1895 and ca. 1900. Then, obscurity. [43] We can now expand this period to a decade.

Again, one must be wary about false or feeble tracks. The Omaha Sunday Bee of February 16, 1890 has a “Julius Weiss” from Austin speaking at a Sängerbund festival — [44] a mouthwatering occurrence which, alas, is a slip of the pen, for the chronicler meant Julius Schütze, editor of the noted German-Texan newspaper, Vorwärts. The Fort Worth Gazette of May 9, 1890 has a “J. Weiss” from Texas lodging at a city hotel — a bit vague. [45] But Morrison and Fourmy’s Directory of the City of Houston, 1890–91, presumably compiled by late 1889, has a “Weiss Julius, agent, pawnbroker, jewelry, watches, 78 Travis bt Preston, Prairie, bds Mrs. H. M. Dusenberry.” [46] This is our man for sure, his activities matching those he had had in Texarkana. The 1892–93 edition has “Weiss Julius, mgr M. Mercer, 514 Main, bds Mrs. H. M. Dusenbery” (single r here). [47] Hence, the fugitive Weiss soon found a lodging in Houston, where he spent at least the following ten years.

Another interesting, albeit slightly puzzling, piece of evidence comes from the Galveston Daily News, June 24, 1891, which, under the heading “The Ursulines Academy Commencement,” has: “The following attractive commencement programme will be rendered to-morrow evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Ursuline convent;” [48] then, as was common in nineteenth-century U.S. newspapers, titles are listed on the left side of the column, composers or performers on the right. However, the latter rule is inconsistently followed and, as we come across “Sounds from Home......Julius Weiss,” we wonder whether he were composer or performer. Apparently, the journalist took him to be the composer, yet Sounds from Home was a then-known piece by Josef Gung’l. Thus, either he was the soloist, or conducted the bizarre ensemble, with piano, violins, guitars, and a zither, all played by young ladies. Taking part, in whatever role, in this Academy Commencement suggests that he was a music teacher at the school the well-known New Orleans Ursulines had opened in Galveston — perhaps a second job, as music had always been to him.

Weiss’s presence in town sheds a different light on earlier data. Had he really married Miss Blum, of the noted Leon & H. Blum firm, a major victim of the Texarkana scam, the Blums should be furiously chasing him, and he would not step into the lion’s den, let alone with his real name on the city Daily News. As a consequence, either this is another Julius Weiss, or, more likely, he had invented his — so far undocumented — marriage to better swindle Texarkanans, in a genuine Eulenspiegel vein.

This said, Weiss’s life in South Texas is largely a mystery. There are perhaps a dozen articles in the Galveston Daily News citing the musical activities of a “Prof. Weiss,” matching those he had held in Port Jervis, but never adding his given name; and it is clear, from other clippings, that there were two or three people who could be called “Prof. Weiss” who played music. He is still a tenant here and there — not the lifestyle we would expect of a man who has just cashed $50,000. Was he forced to return the money? But this would imply a trial and serving a prison term, two events at variance with the consistent evidence of him being a free man. On the other hand, after the huge exposure of his scam in the national press, he would certainly not go to a bank, say “My name is Julius Weiss,” and deposit $50,000. Was he swindled in turn? Did he squander the money? Did he give it to the poor? Most importantly, what are the date and whereabouts of his death?

All we know is Lottie Joplin Thomas’s oft-cited statement, attesting that Joplin sent him money on occasion, until he died. [49] This would place Weiss’s death between 1907 and 1916, that is, at a reasonable age between 66 and 75. I could only find one Julius Weiss whose date of death falls in this range. He died in Beaumont, Texas, on February 27, 1913, and is buried in the Hebrew Cemetery. The Houston Jewish Herald-Voice Index to Vitals and Family Events, 1908–2007 calls him “Professor” (and spells his last name “Wiess”). [50] Beaumont is very close to both Galveston and Houston, which adds credibility to the finding. However, there seems to have been another Weiss family in Beaumont; the birth date is given as 1847 (perhaps someone mistook a 1 for a 7?); and the lack of further evidence leaves this document in shaky isolation, unless a connection is found with what the Galveston Daily News reports on May 28, 1905:

One of Beaumont’s Big Establishments Sued by Creditors.
Beaumont, Tex., May 27. — An involuntary petition in bankruptcy was filed today against the Martin Weiss Dry Goods Company by three New York creditors with claims aggregating $25,000. Julius Weiss has been appointed receiver and the business will be continued without interruption. Mr. Weiss has been a heavy loser in oil investments in the last two years and it is on this account that the difficulty has arisen, the dry goods store being one of the best paying in the city. It is anticipated that a compromise will be effected with the creditors and all claims settled at an early date. All local creditors are well secured. [51]

Was this “our” Julius Weiss? Was he, once again, involved in a bankruptcy, but this time on the opposite side? Or was the journalist confusing all those Weisses?

If this research answered many questions, perhaps twice as many emerged. We do not know whether Weiss was ever sentenced in Germany, as Stübinger was, to a prison term followed by forced expatriation. Nor we do know what he did in 1870–74 before reaching Port Jervis (another scam?), whether he knew Stübinger there or in earlier times, whether they were already twin souls in the art of swindling, or whether Weiss got the idea for the first time from his friend and refined it. We do not even know whether he, in his final years, contacted Joplin and asked for money, and whether this was his last scam.

However, the biggest question is: who was this man who, on one hand, repeatedly swindled and stole while, on the other hand, gave free music lessons to a Negro child, the son of a maid servant, for perhaps as long as seven years (1877–84)? Was he suffering from multiple personality disorder? Or was he individually pursuing an social justice utopia, conflating Till Eulenspiegel and Robin Hood into the inspired agent of a higher will, be it a deity or the laws of history?

Right now, any conclusion is subject to revision. However, I cannot help but think of Weiss mesmerizing his young student with wondrous tales of the great European music masters, pointing him to the overwhelming emotional power of choral music, playing four-hand piano duets — then a common teaching practice — such as Schubert’s Military Marches op. 51, echoes of which I perceive in A Breeze from Alabama — an intimate Singverein, for want of a larger one.

In Weiss’s complex personality, two levels seem to coexist — the German idealist à la Schelling, taking music as a magic ladder to a lofty world of pure spirit, imprisoned in a greedy, pragmatic English-American society where money is all, culture is a waste of time, and there is no room for one’s mind to wander in search of spiritual nourishment. Perhaps Weiss yielded to the jungle law while hating it, and conceived his scams as a revenge of intelligence, culture, and spirituality over ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Perhaps he was generous with those he deemed worthy, like young Joplin. He was thus remembered by Rodgers family members.

In musical terms, everything is clearer. Weiss was a typical product of the Singverein movement — although, I concede, not of its ethics. First, he was a German musician. Such identity owed next to nothing to Wagner, of whom he could have heard in Europe Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, if he ever did. On the contrary, musicians from his generation and milieu were at home with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn, and — among older masters — Händel. There is no evidence that he ever tackled Italian or French music, nor more advanced creators, such as Liszt, Brahms, or Bruckner.

Thus, the Joplin–Weiss encounter, as improbable as it looks, belongs in a general trend. It places Joplin squarely in the school of black composers who faced the daunting task of carving a Negro musical identity out of the German musical style, his company being Will Marion Cook, Harry Lawrence Freeman, and even Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. They form no string of random incidents. Simply, they appeared when the English-speaking world was aping Germany in search of the musical refinement it lacked; after all, Sousa, MacDowell, and Ives were fed on the same diet. Joplin’s genius was just stronger, his goals both loftier and vaster, his path entirely personal.

Context IV: The Ghios and the Orrs

Wellge’s map is not our only visual source on early Texarkana. The oldest existing photo dates 1874. There is not much of a city yet; one can see a well at the center and, before it, a five-year-old girl in white robe, with adults, probably her parents, behind her. [52] The girl was Ambolyne Ghio, and her father was Italian. Theirs is a fascinating story.

1874 Texarkana

Figure 3. The oldest photo of Texarkana. 1874.

Antonio Luigi Ghio (pron. GHEE-oh) was born in Genoa in April 1832. Research in city archives is still going on; so far, no original certificate has resurfaced. gives 1849, which in fact should be his immigration year, as we shall see. Such a date places Ghio in America well before the high tide of Italian immigration triggered by poverty, famine, and soil erosion. Texarkana’s Sacred Heart Cemetery registers many such second-wave Italians, however Ghio belonged in an earlier world. His family boasted an ancient lineage and a coat of arms. According to the same online source:

Anthony came to America, landing at the port of New York. In that city, he found employment as a traveling salesman for a N.Y. firm, travelling principally in the South and the Caribbean Sea. He was in New Orleans and Shreveport, La. early in 1852. Later he went to St. Louis, Mo., where he entered into business and after a short time there he returned to New York and again became a commercial traveller, making that city his headquarters.
Anthony met the woman who would become his bride, Augusta Casassa, in Boston, Mass. She...was also born in the province of Genoa, Italy, but had been reared in Boston. From there, the Ghios went to Illinois, spending time in Cairo, Chicago before they made a much larger move to Jefferson, Tx. In this Texas city, Mr. Ghio was successful at everything he undertook, and it was here [that] he began to amass the fortune that he would eventually share with his devoted family and church. [53]

Another source adds fascinating details:

In the fall of 1873 news leaked out that a town would be constructed where the Texas & Pacific and the Cairo & Fulton railroads met on the state line between Texas and Arkansas. In early December, enterprising men from all over the region rode onto the site and camped out, in order to be there on December 8th when the sale of town lots began. It was important to get there early and claim the choicest lots, if these men would make a profit from their speculative land purchases. Gus Knobel, surveying engineer, and Major H.L. Montrose, special agent of the Texas & Pacific Railroad Company, opened the sale that day by announcing lot prices: $350 for corner lots and $300 for inside lots.... Anthony L. Ghio rode a horse from his home in Jefferson, Texas, to purchase several prominent city lots, both commercial and residential. One of these lots was located at the corner of W. Broad Street and State Street (later renamed Main Street), where Ghio built his famous Opera House. [54]

Back to the earlier source:

In 1874, Mr. Ghio moved his family from Jefferson to Texarkana and he quickly established himself in a completely finished and furnished home at the corner of Third Street and Texas Avenue. It was here that several of their children were born.
Mr. and Mrs. Ghio helped organize and establish the first Catholic church in Texarkana, Tx. and later the first Catholic school. Their home was a frequent rendez-vous for the bishops and visiting priests.
In 1877 Mr. Ghio and Capt. F.M. Henry built the first opera house in Texarkana, which also was the first brick building to be erected in the city. It was located on the corner of Broad Street and Texas Avenue. In 1884 Mr. Ghio built a more elaborate theater, up-to-date and well appointed. [55]

Ghio, who passed away in 1917, gave Texarkana tremendous boost. He ran for mayor of the Texas half of the city (which still has two mayors), won three elections (1881, 1882, 1883), and retired while being still quite popular. [56] He had seven children, one being Ambolyn. She was to marry — no unusual choice in town — a railroad supervisor, John Lewis Griffin. The couple had a daughter, Corinne, who turned up to be, no less, “the Orchid Lady” of the silent screen, Corinne Griffith (1894–1979). Born in Texarkana, she was rated the most beautiful movie star of her age (calling her “actress” would be slightly inaccurate) and, like many, was a casualty of the introduction of sound. After termination of her career and amidst various marriages, Corinne Griffith wrote books on a variety of topics, from cooking recipes to football to taxation (she was against). Her 1952 autobiography, Papa’s Delicate Condition, sketched a picture of her childhood in Texarkana. [57]

The fact that an opera house existed in Texarkana, when Treemonisha’s composer-to-be was a child, is not unknown to scholars, but has been overlooked so far. Edward Berlin cites the 1891 articles reporting how the Texarkana Minstrels, including Joplin, appeared there and got involved in a weird incident. [58] But Ghio’s Opera House opened in 1877, when Joplin was ten and Texarkana three. For some time, it was the only place in town (or county) where entertainment of any sort was being offered. It planted a seed. Theater was to become central to Texarkanans’ life; in later decades, the city came to boast eleven such venues. (Another noted Texarkanan, Ross Perot, funded the renovation of one of them.)

It is hardly surprising that a Genoese born in 1832 would build an opera house in the wilderness, in Fitzcarraldo fashion. The Teatro Carlo Felice, inaugurated in 1828 with Bellini’s Bianca e Fernando, was a veritable center of Genoa’s intellectual and social life. Opera goers were entertained and moved by Romantic subjects, often about conflicts between stiff social rules and free individual impulses, love stories across social barriers, fights for freedom, national and ethnic revolt against an oppressor, political prosecution, and exile. It is hard to imagine the Bowie County residents, with all of their Confederate nostalgia, eagerly awaiting such fare. On the contrary, Ghio must have loved it, at least judging from his personal vicissitudes.

For eight centuries, Genoa had been a republic founded on free commerce and a powerful business net, including slave trade. Africans were liberated in an outburst of popular rebellion in 1797, when the Jacobins staged an elaborated public chain-breaking ceremony. Then, Genoa lost its independence, and the 1815 Vienna Congress assigned it to Piedmont Savoia kings. A popular revolt broke in March 1849, repressed with massive support from English cannons, between April 5 and 11; the insurgents received only limited help from a U.S. brigantine passing by. Repression quickly turned into manslaughter, with killings of unarmed citizens (including children), robberies, rapes, and even prisoners forced to drink urine. [59]

If April 10, 1849 is actually Ghio’s emigration date, as it should be for other dates to make sense, then he escaped the repression on the U.S. brigantine (which would explain the lack of entry reports), safely heading to the country that had supported Genoese freedom. In light of this, could he have endorsed the oppression of minorities? And was the building of a theater in Texarkana just “business as usual”?

Of course, there is a wide gulf between building theaters and staging operas. Apparently, Texarkana had no stable orchestra, although reports from different years inform that it had a Cornet Band, [60] a ladies’ band, [61] and also a string ensemble, [62] engaged for a society ball when the railroad connected Texarkana to Shreveport, Louisiana. Reconstructing activity and seasons, by combing period newspapers, is a task worthy of a separate essay. However, a cursory online search yielded some data, hereby summarized.

As we said, Ghio’s Opera House was built in 1877 and was soon successful. An historian wrote:

During the fall-winter season, Ghio’s Opera House featured the best touring acts available, and seats were sometimes difficult to come by. It was Ghio’s intention to have none but “stars” during the season in Texarkana. Often the performers took to Texarkana streets to draw crowd for their evening performances. [63]

Not surprisingly, a competitor soon appeared, called Orr’s Opera House. Orr is a recurring last name in Texarkana history. A Mr. G. M. Orr visited the area in 1864 and found only four families. [64] Later, in an unspecified year, the Orrs built the first school for black children, usually indicated as the one Joplin attended. Actually this is unproven. There is a photo of the two-story building, [65] then it is known that a fire destroyed the upper floor on February 1898, probably burning all documentation. The ground floor was restored and the resized building is still in place, in the 800 block of Laurel Street. Similarly, there is no evidence as to when Orr’s Opera House appeared, however it hosted what seem to have been lavish productions in 1883–84. This date is perhaps not coincidental, for Ghio’s Opera House burned in 1883, but was soon rebuilt on the same spot. Its rear view is marked by no. 27 on Wellge’s map (fig. 4). Ghio announced its second opening for September 1, 1883, in the New York Dramatic Mirror (fig. 5).

Ghio's Opera House on Wellge's map

Figure 4. Henry Wellge (1850–1917), Perspective Map of Texarkana.
ca. 1888. Detail of Ghio’s Opera House. [fn66]

Ghio's New Opera House article

Figure 5. Ghio’s Opera House advertisement. New York Dramatic
, September 1, 1883. [67]

The theater manager position underwent frequent replacements, with Ghio himself serving in such role on occasion — evidence of his deep involvement in the matter.

No further information has been found on Orr’s Opera House. Period newspapers vaguely report another fire by January 1895, but specify neither its date, nor which building it affected. Perhaps Orr’s, because Ghio’s burned again on May 25, 1898. [68]

Amidst all these conflagrations, the San Francisco Call, October 10, 1897, issued actress May Vokes’s impressions.

May Vokes Tells of Touring in Texas

Figure 6. “May Vokes Tells of Touring in Texas” article. [69]

She does not say which venue hosted her performance, however her overall picture is hardly as glamorous as Ghio’s advertisement suggested, leaving the doubt it was not the same building. Also, much of her despising attitude may be traced to the traditional arrogance of the diva for whom no place is up to her status, and anything below Buckingham Palace is a “barn.” [70]

Down there [in Texas] everything which is used for theatrical purposes is called an “opera house,” whether it be a barn or a church fallen from grace. The “opera house” at Texarkana was as near a barn as you can imagine, and a decidedly battered barn at that. The little box-like rooms which had been intended for dressing rooms were so small that we had to leave our trunks outside, and so low down that it was only by the most careful arrangement of posters that we could secure any privacy at all. [71]

From news in the period press, we learn that Ghio’s was used for political gatherings, benevolent fundraising, lumbermen’s conventions, lectures, minstrel shows (about once per month), concerts, musical theater, and drama. It hosted some (then) celebrated stars of the musical comedy such as Patti Rosa, Myra Goodwin, Roland Reed (more than once), Adelaide Moore (from England), the Gilbert–Huntley Comedy Company, Stuart Robson, and Frank Jones. Top-notch drama companies and stars also performed; Lewis Morrison’s then-celebrated rendition of Mephistopheles in Faust met with great success at Ghio’s, as did Alexander Salvini (few months before he died in Florence), Marie Wainwright, Newton Beers, Stuart Robson, and the masterful Victorian melodrama, The Silver King, by Henry A. Jones and Henry Herman, which Texarkanans could applaud a mere three years after its English première at Princess Theatre, London. In the realm of concert music, it is worthy of notice — although by then Joplin was in Sedalia — that the Blind Boone Concert Company ”drew a full house” on March 1, 1897. [72]

So far, no solid evidence has emerged of a full opera being staged at Ghio’s. What comes closest is the Kimball Opera Comique Company, a sixty-piece organization with singers, a well-trained choir, dancers and players, which won widespread popularity with its fusion of opera, operetta, and burlesque, as exemplified by such titles as Carmen up to Date (which toured Texas in 1892) and Hendrik Hudson, Jr., or the Discovery of Columbus, staged in Texarkana to great success on December 26, 1895. [73] The dressing rooms had to be quite large to accommodate such troupes.

As for Orr’s, it enjoyed at least one brilliant moment. A clipping from the New York Dramatic Mirror reports that, under Thomas Orr’s management:

Bella Golden came April 30, to good business. The play, Forget-Me-Not, was poorly done. The band and orchestra, under the leadership of Professor Rodi, were splendid. [74]
Bella Golden in Forget-Me-Not

Figure 7. Forget-Me-Not advertisement. [75]

Bella Golden was a first-rank actress, and Forget-Me-Not was a warhorse of hers. As for Professor J. M. Rodi, he was a noted band and orchestra conductor. Reference to “band and orchestra” leaves no doubt that many instrumentalists were employed. This is confirmed by an advertisement in the Waco Daily Examiner, December 17, 1882, seemingly for another date from the same tour (see image to the right):

The “company of twenty-three persons” looks like a separate body of artists from the “superb Silver Band and Orchestra,” which “will render the finest overtures ever heard in the city.” A bit more cryptic yet unequivocal is a clipping from the New York Dramatic Mirror of April 14, 1883:

Orr’s Opera House (Thomas Orr, manager): Kiralfys’ Black Crook, March 22, to good business. Haverly’s Merry War, 2d, to fair house. [76]

The Jewish Hungarian dancers, Imre and Bolossy Kiralfy (originally Königsbaum) were renowned for their lavish productions, with “large female chorus lines, high-quality sets and costumes that were usually made in Europe, and innovative special effects.” [77] Their remake of the 1866 classic show, The Black Crook, was up to their fame, judging from surviving images. “Haverly” means Haverly’s English Opera Company, property of John H. “Jack” Haverly, a promoter who had worked with minstrel troupes and then switched to operetta, producing only one show per year with good singers and a complete orchestra. For his long 1883 tour, which reached Texarkana on April 2, he chose The Merry War, that is, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Der lustige Krieg, comic operetta in three acts, premièred in Vienna, Theater an der Wien, on September 25, 1881. Texarkana’s theatrical life was on the cutting edge of events — the ink had barely dried on the score.

This is the first more-or-less opera we know to have been performed in town as such. Strauss’s name comes to us as an enlightening discovery; that Joplin was familiar with his music is apparent from his early, unsyncopated waltzes, one of which, The Augustan Club, also contains an unequivocal yodel pattern in the right-hand countermelody of the A strain. One also finds other specific links. Consider, for instance, the finale of Act I, “Was lange währt, wird gut,” sung by Violetta and choir.

Note: This article uses interactive musical notation produced using Sibelius notation software. The Sibelius Scorch plug-in allows for musical notation to be displayed as well as heard. Transcriptions are notated at concert pitch. The play button starts playback from the beginning. Clicking on any point in the notation starts the playback from that point. Key and tempo can be changed by the user. If you do not see the score, get the Scorch plug-in here.

Example 8. Johann Strauss, Jr. Der lustige Krieg, Act I, Finale (“Was lange währt wird gut”).

Compare the passage above on the words: “Schlagt ein, Herr Substitut, / schnell geht es zum Altar:” with the D strain of Combination March, in the same key of E-flat major:

Example 9. Scott Joplin, Combination March, D strain.

Alas, such similarity, while striking the ear as egregious, relies on commonplace patterns, and is hardly conclusive in itself. Yet it leaves the impression that Strauss’s snippet had sunken, as it were, into Joplin’s subconscious, to resurface years after. As we learn more about Texarkana theatrical seasons, further connections may emerge.

Audiences must have been heterogeneous. Wealthy people are reported to have attended (a man was robbed of a $300 diamond shirt stud that he was wearing); [78] minstrel shows might have catered to more popular patrons. May Vokes describes her audience as rather impolite. No info has surfaced so far as to whether segregation was in use.

But this bears little relevance here. Joplin was performing in a minstrel troupe in 1891, staged The Ragtime Dance in 1899, was busy with A Guest of Honor in 1902–03, with Treemonisha from 1906 on; and was composing If in 1916. Taken together, these involvements with theater stretch over a quarter of a century — half of his life. As we learn that he might attend Ghio’s, some six blocks from home along State Line Avenue, as early as 1877, the total raises to four fifths of his life. Theater was no one-time tourist excursion to him. This looks even truer when considering, as I suggested elsewhere, [79] that some of his piano pieces are actually theater on the keyboard. Joplin’s old image as a “rag pianist” stems from his rediscovery in a moldy-fig perspective that was foreign to him. He must have seen himself as a stage composer.

Now, in order to write for the theater, one must go to the theater. There is no other way to learn the craft. Treemonisha has been described as dramatically weak; yet, not one of Joplin’s abundant and careful stage directions is ineffective, impossible, clumsy, impractical, or betraying a lack of experience and showmanship. Every detail is calculated. The banjo arpeggio opening “We Will Rest a While” is no frill — it is there to give a cappella singers the pitch. There is an effective dance number per act, each one different, each choreographed by Joplin himself. And each act has a real finale.

Also, from what is known about A Guest of Honor, Joplin respected Aristotle’s three unities (time, place, action) in all of his stage works. He was conversant with the grammar and syntax of the medium, and could even add genial twists to tried-and-true stage solutions. There is no dearth of ballet scenes in opera, yet who had ever conceived a bear dance? As far as I know, only Pier Francesco Cavalli in La Calisto, a seventeenth-century work, drenched in Baroque taste for the marvelous and the magic — a score Joplin could not have known. And who else wrote a three-act opera in which the main character is gagged during most of Act II? Both elements are redolent of Mozart’s Zauberflöte, however only as a generic starting point from which Joplin substantially departed. His wild animals are not tamed by humans; they are tame, and humans shout them away. Papageno’s padlock is humorous, Treemonisha’s gag is not, as we shall see.

In such a small town, it is safe to assume that, sooner or later, everybody went to the theater, if only for a benevolent meeting. As a black teenager, Joplin could easily be assiduous; a valet job, for instance, would earn him salary plus tips. And he could have watched anything from minstrelsy to Strauss, while daydreaming of his future — a natural extension of what Antonio Ghio had dreamed for him and for all Texarkana youth.

Years of Train(ing)

As far as we can say at this early stage, Ghio’s policy was far from Germanophile. It was rather Anglophile, possibly due to the audience’s predominant ethnicity. Drama and musical comedy abounded; English stars were welcome. There was little room for pure, abstract music.

Thus, young Joplin must have been caught between two contrasting sources of information and inspiration — the masterpieces Weiss told him of, and the actual theater in town. Could he also experience the former firsthand? The answer is: yes. We do not know whether he did, of course, however the possibility logically stems from the combination of two above-described elements: Texas Germans and trains.

Opera companies in nineteenth-century USA often disseminated pocket versions of the basic repertoire. Only when stable symphony orchestras took a foothold — that is, by the last quarter of the century — did opera production in the USA emulate European standards. The transition was gradual; most cities could still afford touring companies only, which were forced to cut, downsize, translate, and adapt, to keep budgets low and audiences attentive. If this did not happen, newspaper advertisements stressed the exceptional event — a full-sized production! The San Antonio Light of May 11, 1883 has the advertisement pictured in Fig. 10.

Turner Opera Hall advertisement

Figure 10. Der Freischütz advertisement. [80]

Notice the Eighth Cavalry Band “assisting,” perhaps to add a touch of grandeur, or provide extra wind players. Notice also that Der Freischütz is called “grand opera,” a term no European would use for this work (it belongs instead to Meyerbeer), yet common in the USA to indicate real opera, as opposed to operetta, musical, and other “less grand” genres. And finally, notice how its three acts had magically grown to four! Perhaps agents sold it as even grander than it was.

Could Julius Weiss and his young protegé go watch it? Certainly. For instance, the timetable issued by the Galveston News on January 30, 1880 shows that the International and Great Northern Railroad connected Texarkana to Austin in about one day; a little extra effort was required to reach San Antonio. Today’s readers may find it an overly long trip; period music lovers saw it differently. Newspapers attest to the fact that opera tickets were sold in advance, at auction, to people living hundreds of miles away. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of January 15, 1884 has:

Auction Sale of Seats.
CINCINNATI, Jan. 15 — The auction sale for choice season seats for a two weeks opera Faust, to be given by the College of Music, with Abbey’s company in February, began this morning. The boxes sold at $375 and $650. Single seats began at $36 and sold as low as $17 and upwards. Three hundred seats were sold at noon. The purchasers include more strangers than residents. Seats were bought for people in Memphis, Tucson, Arizona; St. Louis, Chicago, Sedalia, Mo.; Keokuk, Toledo, Louisville and points in Ohio and Indiana. [81]

The reason is obvious: cheaper vaudeville troupes could be hosted by any venue — including barns — and traveled extensively. A full opera could only be staged in few cities and drew its audience from a much larger basin. Vaudeville travelled to people; people travelled to opera.

German Texans ensured frequent staging of major operas, or excerpts thereof, in affordable train distance for Joplin and Weiss. The latter must have had acquaintances in those communities, if in 1889 he took the same train for less noble reasons. For young Joplin, such trips would mean a jump into a more advanced and attractive world. And nobody would have objected to Professor Weiss traveling with a black valet.

After Weiss’s tuition, there came the wandering years, that obscure period in Joplin’s life when we lose track of him. Friends said that he traveled up and down several states, including Texas. Thus, he could work and attend theaters or Singvereine, absorbing both musical and non-musical ideas. In the early nineties, he sang in a vocal group called, perhaps significantly, the Texas Medley Quartette. It is known that it extensively toured, but its closest stop documented so far is in Iowa. The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette of August 22, 1893 attests that “Their singing is excellent.” [82] The German professor and Männerchor conductor could be proud of his alumnus being so appreciated in classy venues.

In later years Joplin settled in Sedalia and then St. Louis; both cities were furnished with theatrical buildings. In Sedalia, Wood’s Opera House did admit colored audience members, although in a separate section, [83] a fact that elicited occasional complaints in the Sedalia Daily Conservator, the black community press organ, for most seats were not good. However, from a cursory exploration of period newspapers, programming looks poor — lots of orators and meetings, some minstrelsy, much drama, and little else, which may explain why opera lovers might choose to travel as far as Cincinnati. Also, in August 1900, Wood’s had its roof damaged by a tornado. [84] Joplin might have gone to nearby St. Louis to enjoy good music; he ended up relocating there by early 1901.

Sedalia’s major contribution to Joplin’s theatrical background was probably the George R. Smith College. It is always cited in his biographies, but not much is known about it. Opened in 1884 and burned in 1925 in unknown circumstances, it enjoyed national reputation; many black professors who studied or taught there proudly stressed it in their CV’s. [85] Classes included English literature, Latin, Greek, and philosophy, which may account for Joplin’s command of poetry and knowledge of Aristotle. In the 1920s, the College had a choir; it is not known when it had been founded. Joplin enrolled to study composition, and in fact had his first pieces in print soon after. In a Methodist college, syncopation was hardly encouraged; he was likely trained, first and foremost, into writing choral pieces, as well as art songs and piano music.

The Importance of Being Ernst

St. Louis had a large German community, a first-rank operatic activity, and a symphony orchestra, born as a Singverein and still boasting the words “Choral Society” in its name. Browsing city newspapers, one is struck by the overflow of ads announcing musical and theatrical entertainment. The daily diet was impressive. It included opera, operetta, musical comedy, vaudeville, black and white minstrelsy, symphony orchestra, choir, chamber music, and military band. First-rank names were staples in St. Louis, then aggressively competing with Chicago for the rank of the USA’s fourth metropolis. To name an example, in the years of Joplin’s sojourn, military band concerts included those conducted by John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor, and Giuseppe Creatore; the appointed band conductor for the 1904 World’s Fair was another star, Luciano Conterno.

The busiest venue was perhaps the Odeon Theater, a five-story building erected few years before as a Masonic temple and torn down in 1935. Designed by the noted architect, William Albert Swasey, it hosted sundry events, and was the home base of the city’s most important musical organization, the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society, conducted by Alfred Ernst.

Ernst is known to Joplin scholars for his glowing endorsement of the latter’s musical genius, issued in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of February 28, 1901. [86] This isolated document has prompted multiple interpretations; a more contextualized one is offered here.

Firstly, two articles appeared on this subject. The known one was the second to come out. Four days before, in the St. Louis Republic, five topics were treated under the portmanteau heading, “The Musical Amateur,” the fourth one being “The Negro Composer.” Its author adopts a more patronizing tone than the Post-Dispatch critic, yet content is similar, leaving the impression that Ernst spoke to two journalists, whose reports differ in how they understood and worded his thoughts.

The Musical Amateur

Figure 11. “The Musical Amateur,” anonymous article including a paragraph on Joplin. [87]

Booker T. Washington has long been to negroes an example of what education will make of one of their race, and Ohio has been inordinately proud of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the black, black [sic] negro poet, who read to the Queen when he was in London. According to Professor Alfred Ernst and some of his amateur friends, Missouri will produce the negro musical genius. The enthusiastic Symphony director has a thick-lipped negro protegé from Sedalia named Scott Joplin, 26 [sic] years old, who, quite unaided, learned to play on a piano and has composed music which causes the professor to go into raptures. Professor Ernst is certain that the man is a genius, and is determined to give him an opportunity to show what he can do. Joplin is not yet in St. Louis, but when he comes he will be tutored by Professor Ernst. The negro is a very intelligent looking chap and has a fair education. He has visited in this city several times. He has been taught only the rudiments of music, yet starting with that he has evolved for himself a system of using his hands and reading music that is remarkable. He studied the elementary principles of composition and sat down at a piano and painstakingly composed a piece of ragtime music that is above the average. There were mistakes to the composition, but Professor Ernst is so impressed that he intends to take it to Germany this summer and introduce it as an example of the country’s negro melodies. Joplin earns his living in Sedalia by day labor, and supplying dance music at negro entertainments at night. [88]

Notice how Joplin is described as ignorant, instinctive, and self-taught, as per the standard self-made man and noble savage myths, heralding a century of sensationalism on allegedly illiterate jazz players, soon to find hundreds of practictioners — and millions of buyers.

To properly understand Ernst’s stance, some light must be shed on his personality. Available information is far from lavish. [89] Born on June 3, 1866 in Magdeburg (Joplin’s life was apparently full of Saxons), he is said to have studied in Leipzig, which would mean at the Königliches Konservatorium. An extraordinary pianist, as well as a composer whose merits have sunken into oblivion, he was paradoxically a not-so-experienced conductor. Before crossing the ocean and settling in New York (1893), he had only had a brief, albeit important, experience with the renowned Duke of Gotha’s court orchestra.

Ernst’s role in the rise of what is known today as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was of paramount importance; he turned a local music club into a first-rank outfit. His predecessor, Joseph Otten (1852–1926), a Dutch Catholic organist, choirmaster, and church music scholar, had founded the St. Louis Choral Society in 1880 as an eighty-member Singverein, hosted in the Mercantile Library auditorium. The following year, a thirty-one-piece orchestra had been added, although the choir still kept its predominant role. The organization formally became the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society only in 1893. At that point, a real conductor, rather than a choirmaster, was needed, and Ernst took over the baton. Clearly, his goal — either requested, or self-imposed, or both — was drilling the new outfit into achieving the highest musical standards. The choice of a promising man of twenty-eight also suggests that Ernst was expected to stay for decades, honing the ensemble to perfection.

Ernst plunged into the new challenge with enthusiasm and achieved brilliant results. By 1899 he had expanded the season from six to twelve concerts. The Choral-Symphony Society gained efficiency and prestige, and added both personnel and repertoire, the choir still being given the lion’s share. The Kansas City Journal of November 22, 1899 had a long article on the renowned ensemble coming to town:

Will Be Heard at Convention Hall December 8 — Names of All the
Visitors — A Musical Event of Importance.
The announcement that the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society will come to Kansas City December 8, and give a grand concert in Convention hall has already attracted much attention, not only because of the musical importance of the promised occasion, but also because of the compliment that will be paid Kansas City by the St. Louis singers and musicians. At a meeting held Monday night in St. Louis it was determined that the full strength of the choral branch, 300 in number, and the Symphony orchestra of sixty pieces, would be sent to Kansas City. The singers give their services free of charge, as the society is not a moneymaking institution, but a musical and social organization, whose social objects are subordinated, however, to musical excellence.
Nothing except good can come of fraternal and social feeling between Kansas City and St. Louis. This society is one of the finest musical organizations in the United States. It has a large corps of officers, some of them very wealthy, and its seasons of music are conducted on a high artistic and a sound financial basis. It brings to St. Louis every year the greatest soloists to be had. In the concert in Convention hall the programme will be one of the finest mixed programmes Kansas City has ever known. The Symphony orchestra, which is composed of sixty of the first instrumentalists in St. Louis, will have a large share in the entertainment, and will play a musical novelty or two, in addition to standard selections. The opening overture very likely will be Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a work which has not been heard here in a long time, except at organ recitals. It will be a welcome return. The conductor of the orchestra is Alfred Ernst, while the president of the society is William McMillan, one of the most prominent business men of St. Louis.
The St. Louis people will be brought to Kansas City by a special train of eight coaches, and will arrive early in the afternoon. They will be given a reception before the concert. Many of them have friends and relatives in Kansas City. The musical societies and some of the other organizations of the city will be asked to extend them a welcome. The complete roster of the orchestra and the choral department, classified and in alphabetical order, is as follows:.... [90]

And here, believe it or not, the entire personnel is listed, librarian included, in a triumph of German names: Schön, Vollrath, Jacobs, Kaub, Wächtler, Böhmen, Lichtenstein.... In the first soprano department, the presence of Miss Eleanor Stark cannot pass unnoticed to Joplin scholars. Nor can one overlook that sort of mission statement implying that musical excellence comes first, social goals (education) next, and money last. Priorities seem to have changed in recent times. Today, such a glowing introduction from a Kansas City chronicler may smack of naïvete. But judging it so would be unfair. Contrary to widely held opinion, Kansas City could then boast first-class opera and symphonic seasons.

Ernst’s concerts, with or without the orchestra, regularly featured major solo stars, in a marked departure from Otten’s liturgy-oriented menu. For instance, Ernestine Schumann-Heink gave several concerts to Ernst’s piano accompaniment, and was thrilled. The St. Louis Republic of March 5, 1902 has:

Mme. Schumann-Heink Promises to Use Influence in Professor Alfred Ernst’s Behalf.
Through the influence of Mme. Schumann-Heink, the gifted soprano who visited St. Louis several weeks ago, Professor Alfred Ernst, leader of the Choral-Symphony orchestra, may enjoy the distinction of conducting the famous Wagnerian festival next summer at Beyreuth [sic], Germany. On the occasion of Mme. Schumann-Heink’s recent visit to St. Louis, Professor Ernst was her accompanist, and she became impressed with his artistic rendering of some difficult compositions.
At an informal reception to Mme. Schumann-Heink, given in the residence of Kaspar Koehler, the great soprano promised that, on her return to Germany, she would arrange to have Professor Ernst presented to Mme. Cosma [sic] Wagner, widow of the famous composer, and daughter of Franz Liszt, the pianist, at Wahnfried, her villa, near Beyreuth. Mme. Heink is a close personal friend of Mme. Cosma Wagner, and it is considered almost certain that a promise made by Mme. Heink to Professor Ernst will also be fulfilled by Wagner’s widow.
Professor Ernst will sail for Europe toward the last of April, unless the World’s Fair officials should in the meantime decide to enlist his services as leader during the continuance of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
The Wagnerian festivals, which are conducted annually in Beyreuth, are of the greatest interest, not only to musicians in Germany, but to those of all Europe as well. The numbers are ordinarily Wagnerian compositions. To the greatest masters of that school falls the honor of conducting the festivals. Professor Ernst is considered among the most capable interpreters of the Wagnerian productions in St. Louis, and probably in the West. [91]

Mme. Schumann-Heink’s endorsement speaks volumes about Ernst’s musical stature, and makes his endorsement of Joplin all the more valuable. Besides, had he been an undistinguished local hero, his collaborations with such names as Louise Homer, Pablo Casals, or Jacques Thibaud (advertised as “Greater than Kubelik” — quelle finesse!) would be hard to explain.

Ernst’s merits are thus summarized by E. R. Kroeger in the St. Louis Republic of April 27, 1902, in a lengthy article, entitled “On the Condition of Musical Affairs in St. Louis.”

....the mind reverts to the history of our St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society, which is practically the musical history of the city up to the season just passing.... With an orchestra at first composed merely of local musicians playing together in a heterogeneous manner, we have now a unified Symphony Orchestra capable of interpreting the master works from Beethoven to Tschaikowsky in an eminently satisfactory manner. The chorus also has improved to a great extent, and this has been somewhat surprising, considering the predilections of the conductor, Mr. Alfred Ernst, for instrumental work. He has brought the chorus up to a rare pitch of excellence. [92]

But he was more than just an able performer — he had a vision.

As a composer born in 1866, Ernst belonged to the same post-Wagnerian wave as Wolf and Mahler (born 1860), Richard Strauss (1864), and Reger (1873); or, outside the German-speaking world, Janáček (1854, but a late-blooming genius), Puccini (1858), Debussy (1862), Sibelius (1865), and Busoni (1866). In the German-speaking countries, composers from that generation were focused on stretching their musical language, especially in the realm of harmony and voicing, with limited interest for contribution from other cultures. In the rest of the world, most major figures were developing their styles with marked national identities, often defined by what made them differ from the German canon. The bilingual, bicultural Busoni sat right at the center, contributing to both tendencies.

Today, Ernst’s music is not available for study and performance. However he programmed some of his pieces, either in the Choral-Symphony season or in chamber concerts. Newspapers report a few titles; one is especially revealing. On December 5, 1901, the St. Louis Republic has:

The second concert of the Choral-Symphony Society will be rendered December 14. The orchestral numbers will be the Jubilee march by Nicode; two selections from Wagner, “Albumblatt” and “Traume;” the Fest march by Strauss and Alfred Ernst’s latest composition, “Bragiu Idema.” [sic] [93]

The first item is easily identified as the Jubiläumsmarsch op. 20 by Prussian composer, Jean-Louis Nicodé (1853–1919); Wagner’s “Träume” is from the Wesendonck-Lieder cycle; the Festmarsch is by Richard Strauss. It took a while to find that Ernst’s own piece is a tone poem, Bragi und Iduna, inspired by two characters from ancient Norse mythology, known from the Icelandic saga, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, and introduced to young readers by Wilhelm Wägner’s book for juveniles, Göttersagen, in 1878, when Ernst was a boy of twelve.

Apparently, Ernst was just another late-Romantic, harmonically winding German composer. His affinity to Wagner is known from various sources, including the Joplin and Schumann-Heink incidents; and that very 1901 programme was entirely devoted to Wagner and his heirs. Yet a tone poem about Bragi, the divine singer-harpist, and his wife Iðunn, the goddess harvesting the apples of perpetual youth, is evidence of something more specific.

The music Ernst conducted in his St. Louis seasons displays a double strategy. On one hand, there is continuity with the Otten choral era, except that minor composers and obscure titles were wiped out, replaced by Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Händel’s Messiah, Gounod’s La Rédemption, Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem and Schicksalslied — in short, a Singverein-type of repertoire at its most profound. At the same time, Ernst strove to acquaint his audience with cutting-edge new music. This could be picked up either in the German area, like Richard Strauss, or from other nations. In the latter case, the exploration of music from, or about, Northern Europe was so consistent, at the expense of any other area, it cannot be dismissed as coincidental. A few titles drawn from the press: Fest-Ouvertüre op. 51 by Eduard Lassen (Danish/Belgian); Symphony no. 1 in D Minor op. 21 by Christian Sinding (Norwegian); Scottish Symphony in A minor, op. 56 by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy; Daybreak (to Longfellow’s poem) by Eaton Faning (English); Symphony no. 1 in D major, op. 4 by Johan Svendsen (Norwegian); Piano Concerto in A minor op. 16 (with Raoul Pugno) by Edvard Grieg (Norwegian). Ernst’s own Bragi und Iduna naturally falls in this list.

As Ernst did not give equal treatment to Russian, Bohemian, Italian, or French composers — or even the Finnish Sibelius, a possible explanation is that he was trying to adapt Wagner’s theories on the role of Volk in the arts (as expressed in his noted 1849 writing, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft) to America. Ernst came to New York when Dvořák was there and was tackling the same problem: in an era of musical nationalism, who can represent the USA, a nation with no single Volk? At first, Dvořák assumed that Amerindian cultures carried the essence of the völkisch (hence his reading Longfellow’s Hiawatha on the ship), but soon after he drifted toward the American Negro, mainly under H. T. Burleigh’s influence. With Jim Crow at its zenith, such views could only stir controversy, as they did.

Ernst was now at work in a city in which a huge German population also formed a large chunk of his orchestra and audience; there, children had been taught German at school until 1887. He seems to have embraced what today we would call a multi-ethnic stance — and with good reason.

Giovan Battista Vico’s often quoted aphorism, “La natura delle cose sta nel loro cominciamento” (“The nature of things lies in their beginnings”), fits like a glove to the Volkstum as eternal entity. Whatever the ancestors were, we are. Wilhelm Wägner’s Nordic sagas for children had been soon (1880) reprinted in English as Asgard and the Gods — The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors. “Our,” here, holds good for both German and English readers. In a Volkstum perspective, Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, and their American offspring are to be regarded as Diasporic branches of a single Volk, sharing origins and myths stemming out of the same ancestors. In this perspective, Ernst’s insistence on programming North-European music betrays an effort to build a sense of pan-Germanic Volkstum.

One century before Cavalli-Sforza’s DNA tree, this ethnic macro-group, however defined, was assumed to share no common origin with Africans and Native Americans. (Darwin’s evolution alone did not imply monogenesis back then.) So, what to do with them? In the perspective Ernst adopted, each ethnicity was supposed to have its own Volkstum and, sooner or later, produce a genius capable of voicing it at the highest artistic level. Alas, nothing like that was in sight.

Then, Ernst stumbled upon a handy solution — or what looked like one. By November 1898, news came from Sunderland, England, about the sudden success of a cantata, written by a twenty-three-year-old protegé of Sir Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music. A work for choir and orchestra, nicely suited for a Singverein-type of organization, it was based on Longfellow’s Indian epics, and was composed by a Negro. Novello had published the score in advance, given the enormous expectations from the English music world. Ernst must have quickly ordered the purchase, for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was scheduled for the 1900–01 season, a decision probably planned by 1899. The event, as did all Society concerts, deserved an adequate advertisement in the St. Louis Republic. Yet something is missing:

Hiawatha's Wedding Feast advertisement

Figure 12. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast advertisement. [94]

Was the composer’s name omitted by an absent-minded typographer? Not quite. Jeffrey Green, who recently uncovered much new information on Coleridge-Taylor, wrote about his incidental music: “One play went from London to New York in 1906 — where his name is not printed on the programme because he was by then known to be a black Englishman.” [95]

We do not know how Ernst took the embarrassing omission. It probably showed him what a bumpy road he had taken in attempting to convince St. Louisans that the Negro Volkstum was just as noble as the Germanic one.

However, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was performed on November 29, 1900. Only three months later, Ernst endorsed Joplin’s genius. What had happened in between?

Although Coleridge-Taylor’s name was not on the bill, somebody obviously knew who he was. Eleanor Stark, who may have sung in the choir, or other common acquaintances (more on them below) probably reasoned that, if Ernst was that open-minded about blacks, he might give Joplin a chance. Organizing a meeting would be even easier if Joplin attended the concert.

Now, that he was interested enough to travel from Sedalia is patent. We would love to know whether he heard Coleridge-Taylor’s music live as early as 1901. But would they let him in?

Combing the existing bibliography yielded no conclusive data. Authors repeat that St. Louis was a hugely segregated city until the 1960s, with some exceptions, such as street cars. Also, it boasted an important black theater from 1912 on. Oral history reports focus on separate areas for black and white patrons in 1940s movie houses. But no source says whether the Odeon Theater admitted blacks in 1901, whether they were assigned the “vulture roost,” as it was later called, and whether this coincided with what the advertisement calls “Balcony, remainder.“ Figure 13 shows the inner structure of the hall:

Odeon Theater seating plan

Figure 13. Odeon Theater, St. Louis, inner structure. [96]

Be that as it may, Ernst came to know Joplin and felt he had found the genius embodying the Negro Volkstum.

Coleridge-Taylor was, in many respects, the opposite of Joplin. He grew in a wealthy family, in a major international capital, went to a top-notch school, followed a rigorous training, graduated with honor and amidst grand expectations. His Africanity came neither by his father, whom he never saw, nor from an environment where he was almost the only non-white; it stemmed out of reading and fantasizing. His music has beautiful melodic themes and displays a thorough command of complex harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, but also, as it were, the Victorian version of Dunstable’s “English countenance” — it is always a bit restrained, as if wearing a musical girdle. For instance, developments are clever but hardly add any emotional content that was not in the primary material. [97]

Joplin had learned notation and piano from Weiss, who based his teaching on classic and early Romantic composers. Then he had attended the Smith College which, as good as it could be, was hardly comparable to the Royal College of Music. He probably still lacked developmental techniques, counterpoint, advanced harmony, and orchestration. But his genius did shine even through his limited means; Coleridge-Taylor was nothing more than a well-cultivated talent. Yet, the latter could pen a score that the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society would perform; Joplin could not. Ernst’s ideal bard of the Negro Volkstum was supposed to combine Joplin’s powerful material and Coleridge-Taylor’s refined craftsmanship. He conceived the idea of completing Joplin’s training himself or sending him to a German school.

Apparently, nothing came of it. Ernst (and his wife, a contralto, always tantalizingly referred to as “Mrs. Ernst”) did teach at the Strassberger’s Conservatories of Music, 2200 St. Louis Avenue, as shown by multiple advertisements in the St. Louis Republic. But the gap-bridging job he had in mind would have required Joplin to attend for years, while the latter was struggling to make ends meet and quickly became busy with A Guest of Honor. Their life trajectories probably parted.

However, we know from Rudi Blesh — who held the book in his hands — that Joplin studied Salomon Jadassohn’s Manual of Single, Double, Triple and Quadruple Counterpoint in depth. [98] Born in 1831, Jadassohn was a world-renowned theorist and the teacher of, among others, Grieg, Sinding, Busoni, Albéniz, Delius, Julián Carrillo, and Franco Alfano, at the Leipzig Königliches Konservatorium. Is this just a coincidence, or did Ernst study with Jadassohn? Was a plan to send Joplin to Leipzig frustrated by Jadassohn’s death in 1902? Ernst’s papers, if existing, might answer. I cannot help wondering whether that book was a gift to help a potential student, who was busy traveling, but who had perfect pitch, could learn straight from sight-reading, and then write down counterpoint exercises.

There is also an alternative scenario, again suggested by Schuller’s remark about Don Carlos. How could Joplin become acquainted with such rarely heard score before 1906? Not from Weiss, who, as a perpetual fugitive, would not ballast his bags with heavy tomes, as Albrecht had imagined. [99] Nor from Ernst, who seems to have never conducted a vocal score in Italian. A reasonable candidate is Rocco Venuto.

Rocco Venuto

Figure 14. Portrait of Rocco Venuto.

The Kansas City Journal of November 27, 1898, under the general heading “Composers of Music,” has seven portraits (in words as well as in ink) of distinguished musicians then active in town: John Behr, Carl Busch, H. O. Wheeler, Carl Hoffman, Rocco Venuto, Charles N. Daniels, and J. Hopkins Flinn.

Rocco Venuto is another of the musicians who have contributed to Kansas City’s fame abroad. He has had many of his compositions published in New York and Chicago. Mr. Venuto has written twenty-five marches, many waltzes and polkas and three suites for orchestra. Seventeen years ago he placed his first song on sale. It was entitled “Good-by, Dear Love,” and both words and music were from his pen. Then came the “Convention Hall” and “Coming Star” marches. “The Kansas City Journal March,” of which Mr. Venuto is the composer, has been published but two months and is in its second edition. Mr. Venuto came here sixteen years ago from St. Louis. He was born in Naples, Italy. His musical studies have all been directed by Kansas City teachers, Mr. Lenge and Mr. Busch. He plays the violin in the Symphony orchestra at present. [100]

Venuto was born on November 11, 1869. His elder brother Giuseppe (1865–1895) was also a musician; his untimely death won him a touching eulogy in the Journal. Their family emigrated from Naples in 1875. Rocco studied with the above-cited Carl Busch (1862–1943), a Danish flautist, an alumnus of Niels Gade’s, and a composer of some renown in those days for his Indianist works. In 1895 Busch was conducting the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, for which Venuto served as a violinist, violist, and more. On November 1, 1896, the Kansas City Daily Journal informs that:

Rocco Venuto has been made librarian for both the Symphony and Philharmonic orchestras, and has also arranged to transcribe the music for these organizations. His headquarters is 539 Ridge building. [101]

This may mean that he was also a copyist. At the same time, he played violin in the Symphony Orchestra, which programmed some of his music, such as Love Romance. The Daily Journal of January 3, 1897 has:

A novelty among the orchestral numbers will be the excerpt from the Rocco Venuto suite. This will be the second time this young Kansas City composer has been honored by a place on the Symphony programmes. The suite is founded on an old Italian romance, in which Francis II placed his cousin in prison for disobedience, only to find later that his own daughter has fallen in love with the prisoner and aided him to escape. The string movement denotes the meeting of the two after the lover’s liberation. [102]

Two months later, the Philharmonic, too, played the “romanza for strings by Rocco Venuto, Kansas City’s young composer, who was called out by the enthusiastic audience”. [103] On July 2, we learn of Alessandro Liberati giving a thrilling (and “swinging”) première:

Sousa’s latest march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was played for the first time in Kansas City at Washington park last night by Liberati and the military band. The new march, which in the minds of all who heard it is among the best of the long list of Sousa productions, was received with enthusiasm. It has a dash and swing that arouses patriotism at every moment.... Other numbers last night were Rocco Venuto’s new “Convention Hall March,” the ballet music and soldiers’ chorus from “William Tell” and a fantasie on “My Old Kentucky Home.” Liberati played the finest selection of all he has ever given here, the prayer from “Die Freischutz,” [sic] which was given with fine effect. [104]

On October 17, we read that the new roster of the Philharmonic has Venuto on viola, snare drum, bass drum, and as librarian; [105] on October 24, that the Symphony has him on drums. [106] On July 24, 1898, the Kansas City Journal proudly prints — in its entirety — the piano score of Venuto’s “Kansas City Journal March” — a marketing stroke of genius, for the daily newspaper will follow his moves day by day from that moment on. The article reports that he also plays in Lenge’s Military Band, two symphony orchestras being apparently not enough for him. Also:

A full operatic score for “The Three Enemies” has been written by Mr. Venuto, and, judging by the quality ot the prelude and intermezzo, which have been played by the Symphony and Philharmonic orchestras, Mr. Venuto has decided talent for operatic writing. [107]

On January 23, 1901, the St. Louis Republic “Marriage Licenses” column lists Venuto (of Kansas City) and Lillie Cavallo (address 4131 Finney Avenue, St. Louis). [108] The New York Dramatic Mirror of August 9, 1902 has:

Rocco Venuto, a well-known composer and musician here, will shortly remove to St. Louis to accept a position with the Daniels, Russell and Boone Music Co. He has been a member of the Symphony Orchestra since its founding, and has also played with the Philharmonic. [109]

From then on, Venuto appears to be active in St. Louis. On February 8, 1903, the St. Louis Republic has him featured as a virtuoso xylophonist with Weil’s Band, performing the overture from Suppé’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. [110] On March 29, the next (April 2) St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society concert is introduced, Alfred Ernst conducting, and featuring the Henneman Ladies’ Quartet in the “Scène dramatique” from Venuto’s opera, I tre nemici (“The Three Enemies”). [111] On August 9, 1904, the Republic announces the evening concert of Bafuno’s Band, playing Venuto’s An Indian Wooing — Meeneowha. [112]

Venuto was a regular contributor to several St. Louis publishing houses, including Stark. He penned the theater orchestra versions of James Scott’s Ophelia Rag and Hilarity Rag, as well as Joseph Lamb’s Sensation Rag for Stark’s Standard High-Class Rags folio, to which Joplin himself contributed his orchestration of Scott’s Frog Legs Rag. Venuto’s St. Louis years also saw the publication of The Newlyweds’ Anniversary (Thiebes-Stierlin Music, 1908), Remus Barn Dance (Howard & Browne, 1908), and more. An unusual spelling for Minnehaha, the cited Meeneowha — Intermezzo (S. Simon, 1903) followed the Indian intermezzo fad. Its not very exciting contours show a faint similarity to Joplin’s later The Chrysanthemum — An Afro-American Intermezzo, which may explain the latter’s use of the word. The original score has, on page 2, a snippet preview of “The Plaything He Cast Aside,” a song by Monroe Rosenfeld, an acquaintance of Joplin’s.

In later years, Venuto remained active in the music publishing world; the 1920 Census shows that he was back in Kansas City. He died on February 21, 1926.

As of this writing, no further developments in the Joplin–Ernst relationship have emerged. Yet, from 1901 on, Joplin learned to arrange for theater orchestra. His command of composition — and especially counterpoint — steadily grew, eventually leading him to write down such a complex piece as Treemonisha’s overture. But the point here is a more substantial one. Not only is Ernst’s teaching undocumented, it is that Joplin’s writing developed along lines that betray no late-Romantic German stamp: no Wagner, no long arches, no perpetual avoidance of cadences. On the contrary, Joplin remained strongly rooted into an early Romantic language, as championed by his own heroes: Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber. Expanding that language without embracing Wagner could mean only one thing — embracing Verdi.

In fact, Joplin’s later music, while devoid of Wagner traits, bursts with Verdi ones. Antoinette is an obvious example to Italian ears. Apparently, he had a Verdi-oriented teacher who ensured the further compositional instruction that Ernst had no time for, including: (1) scoring for symphony orchestra, and for strings in particular; (2) developing thematic material; (3) associating themes and developments to extramusical, literary plots; (4) properly using Italian markings, such as dolce, giocoso, etc. Venuto looks like a good candidate; he had been librarian for three symphony orchestras, and had easy access to scores. His figure, creative opus, and role in Joplin’s life form another gray area, open to future researchers.

This is not to imply that Ernst gave up searching for geniuses and masterpieces embodying either the Indian Volkstum or the Negro one. He insisted, but his plan met with coldness. He was a very demanding conductor, and rumors of strained relationships with some orchestra members had leaked onto the press as early as 1901. [113] As the World’s Fair and the Olympics approached, Ernst’s programs grew grand, his goals lofty, his search for good American music relentless, but his findings, meager. On June 18, 1903 the St. Louis Republic announced a largely German programme, centered on Wagner, with an unusual touch of Spain (from a Russian composer, Anton Rubinstein), and just a drop of “Negro” music — Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” attesting to Ernst’s persisting interest in the field, as well as his fruitless search for more substantial scores. [114] Then, in June 1904, he conducted the inevitable New World Symphony, already a standard, yet still perceived as a bizarre creature:

The themes of the symphony are largely negro melodies, and vary from the weird to the playful. The finale, which is full of excitement, was played with an enthusiasm and spirit that thrilled the listeners. [115]

On June 11, we read this unenthusiastic note:

The opening number of the programme was of the “American” School, a specimen of which Mr. Alfred Ernst, the conductor of the orchestra, selected for the opening concert when Dvorak “From the New World,” which is based on negro themes, was played. The “American” music rendered yesterday was an Indian Suite by Edward McDowell [sic], a native American [then meaning “born in the USA”]. This suite is based on Indian themes, and was so rendered by the orchestra of eighty-one instruments that the many phases of Indian life from the weird and tender to the warlike and the adventurous were all brought out. [116]

The place Joplin did not take was left empty. The time was not ripe for Treemonisha, let alone for Rhapsody in Blue, the Afro-American Symphony, or A Tone Parallel to Harlem. The greatest symphonic work based on Native American material, Busoni’s Indianische Fantasie, came out only in 1913, and no major native composer appeared north of Mexico.

Ernst could have kept his position in St. Louis forever. Yet, in 1907, he gave up and returned to Germany, perhaps feeling he could not venture further. He continued his career as a conductor and composer, was seriously injured in World War I, and died in 1916. His St. Louis experience was a success, in that he improved both program and performance levels, but also a failure, as he could not overcome the biggest hurdle: widespread hostility toward cultural equality for non-whites. In the longer run, he had seen it right, for Joplin did write an opera. But the actual score probably turned out quite different from what he had envisioned. Perhaps, his main merit was, he encouraged his composer to pursue the dream they shared.

The Tree and Monisha

Joplin’s dream was a complex one, for his cultural identity was multi-layered. As a child, soon after Emancipation, he grew into a musical landscape which seemingly did not include the blues. It revolved around the banjo, an instrument conflating traits from several African chordophones — melodic patterns from the ekonting, permutation-driven arpeggios from portable harps, chordal strumming from halam. The European guitar was also common, as were musical styles from the British archipelago, like fiddle jigs. The child heard this music at home and soon started practicing it; banjo and fiddle patterns were to peep out throughout his mature output. Also, field hollers were obviously everywhere around him, and African-derived funeral rituals verging on trance are attested in Texarkana. [117] Still in his infancy, Joplin came to know the daily life of white American bourgeoisie and decided he wanted his share of those people’s more comfortable life. There he heard what Gilbert Chase called “the American genteel tradition” — Texarkana’s Cornet Band, salon dances for the piano, and parlor songs. Minstrel tunes also still enjoyed wide circulation, while notated choral arrangements of Negro spirituals were the new thing. Joplin’s natural talent led to Weiss’s lessons and the discovery of the European classics. Visiting companies at Ghio’s and Orr’s opera houses probably showed him glimpses of a fascinating world. He studied, absorbed sundry musical and social ideas, and dreamed of winning social respectability and status as a musician, but was also confronted with daily brutality, injustice, and hypocrisy. The result was the creation of something more than just a musical style — a complex social-musical view no piano piece could convey more than a fragment of. It took an opera to express it all.

In Treemonisha there is a tree to which Joplin seems to attach the utmost importance. It is present in the main character’s name, in the title of the work, and on stage. This tree is sacred. It cannot be touched, not even to make a pretty innocent wreath out of it. Such an element, unexplained but looming large on the entire opera, strongly suggests the influence of Indian religious-philosophical thought. The Jainist doctrine comes to mind, with its pursuit of Ahimsa, that is, non-injury, or absence of desire to harm any life forms. Just a coincidence?

Then, let us consider Treemonisha’s wondrous birth out of nothing. Again, this element seems very important for Joplin, but we are left to guess why, since, for the sake of the plot, she could be born from her mother’s womb. Many leaders and prophets were attributed miraculous births. The most famous are probably Sargon, Moses, and Romulus. They all exerted a political leadership — founded cities and kingdoms, or led nomadic tribes toward sedentary life — by means of their personal wisdom, vision, and charisma. Treemonisha is a wise charismatic leader with a vision. She will not found a city or state, but rather lead her people out of the captivity of ignorance, toward the promised land of civilization and instruction. Her miraculous birth places her in the same category. Yet, each of those great leaders was found in a basket, not under a tree. There is only one universally known leader with vision, wisdom, and charisma, who happened to be born under a tree. He is Gautama Siddharta, later known as “Buddha,” the Awoken, or Enlightened, according to the tale reported in Asvaghosa’s epic poem, Buddhacarita. A second coincidence?

Now, let us turn to a classic key for the decipherment of literary works — personal names. Some were common among black peasants during and soon after slavery: Ned, Lucy, Andy, Remus. Others sound like bizarre children of Joplin’s mind and, once again, are left unexplained.

Etymology seems to point to multiple linguistic/semantic areas. The conjurors’ names Joplin specifies are Zodzetrick, Luddud, Simon, and Cephus. Zodzetrick is the keystone. The -trick ending of course hints at his being a trickster. What does “Zodze” mean? It looks like a phonetic rendering of Zozo (“penis”), one of the Haitian voodoo spirits associated with fertility, humor, and death. From Joplin’s perspective, Zozo was clearly an evil spirit. He could be evoked when playing with Ouija tables, believed to be a medium to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and commercialized few years before Treemonisha was written. Also, in the 1880s and 1890s, a lavish burlesque called Zozo, the Magic Queen was staged in many U.S. theaters, including Wood’s Opera House, Sedalia, on September 24 and 25, 1886. [118] At that point, laypeople were probably hardly aware of the original meaning of the word. [119] Taking this evidence together, calling a conjuror villain “Zozo Trick,” whatever the preferred spelling, makes perfect sense.

The second conjuror, Luddud, is always at Zodzetrick’s side. No voodoo keys in his name, nor anything else at first, to be sincere. However, after trying in vain all sort of Welsh mythology deities, I reasoned that the conjurors speak Black English Vernacular (BEV). In many coon songs, cullud is BEV spelling for “colored.” Hence luddud could stand for “loaded,” a word rootworkers commonly use to indicate that an object — a candle, an alligator tooth — has been treated or filled with a substance enhancing its magic power. Or “loaded” like a lodestone, which they consider a magical object as well. This makes sense for a character who is always one step away from Zodzetrick.

Two more conjurors, Simon and Cephus, only appear in the forest meeting where Treemonisha is sentenced. Both were common names among blacks, often attested, for instance, in cemetery lists, Cephus also having the obvious alternative spelling, “Cephas.” Now, St. Peter’s name was originally Simon, and Jesus re-christened him Cephas (= Petrus). Hence, the names Simon and Cephus are linked. But, I must confess, I see no link between poor St. Peter and a homicide. Is Joplin alluding to the especially bloody Petro voodoo cult? I leave it open to debate. [120]

As for Treemonisha, the author describes it as tree + Monisha, hence the latter word is the enigma. As far as I know, no explanation has been offered so far, which is puzzling, as the opera is named after it and, as a first name, was hardly common in nineteenth-century black communities. Imagine my surprise when I found Monisha to be a Hindi name! A third coincidence?

Actually, there is more than that — its meaning(s). The adjective manisha covers two semantic areas — an especially useful resource, for a name given to two characters. In the Hindu pantheon, Manisha is the name of the goddess of mind, associated to intelligence and desire. Such name, also spelled Monisha, is still commonly given to female babies in areas, like Nepal, where Hinduist faith is widespread. The association to desire is sometimes traced to a different ethymology, Muni isha, where isha is the ultimate reward a Muni (a revered wise man) craves for; hence, the highest desire. In the opera, such meaning fits the mother. As Joplin makes clear in his preface, “Ned and Monisha had no children, and they had often prayed that their cabin home might one day be brightened by a child that would be a companion for Monisha when Ned was away from home” — the highest desire.

In its association to sharp thinking, Manisha is one of the 108 names for goddess Devi, and means “intellectual.” This of course fits the daughter, “the intellectual of the tree.” But then, who is this person? There is little room for speculation here. Research has established that, while The Maple Leaf and The Rosebud were night venues, dedicatees of the like-named pieces, no such explanation holds good for other titles. The “intellectual of the tree” is obviously the cultivated composer who wrote pieces called after sunflower, lily, peacherine, weeping willow, palm, sycamore, chrysanthemum, eugenia (a genus of the Myrtaceae family), gladiolus, rose, heliotrope, fig, sugar cane, pineapple, pansy, and morning glory. Who else?

All witnesses described Joplin, the man, as gentle and soft-spoken. He practiced what he preached. Thus, Treemonisha personifies both her creator and his beliefs. Nonetheless, she is a fictional character, conflating Joplin with Moses, Gautama Buddha, and perhaps others.

The word “creator” lends itself to another remark. The libretto does not contain the word “God.” All references to a deity always resort to use “Creator,” clearly chosen for its being compatible with every creed, rather than restricted to Christian faith. (The relevance of this point will grow clear as we deal with Parson Alltalk.)

Now we understand why the tree is sacred. In the Indian (Jainist–Hinduist–Buddhist) tradition, all plants are. Images of a tree deity survive from seals dating back to the earliest Indus valley civilization — Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. And, at this point, four coincidences make much more than a proof.

How could Joplin meet and embrace Indian thought? Julius Weiss taught philosophy, and obviously knew Schopenhauer’s main work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. This may have triggered his young pupil’s curiosity. However, there is a better explanation — the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The biggest of its many parallel events, and possibly the one that received the largest press coverage, was the World’s Parliament of Religions. Between September 11 and 27, 1893, representatives of all major creeds met and spoke at the Art Institute of Chicago. The first orator, Swami Vivekananda, delivered a memorable speech, which began, “Sisters and brothers of America!” — which is said to have won him a two-minute standing ovation from the seven thousand people present — and adding soon after that he was there on behalf of “a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” [121] He spoke several more times at the Parliament, remained in the USA until 1896 (but for two trips to England), and became a star, unleashing a tidal wave of interest for Indian culture in America. Conversions flocked, as reported by period newspapers, and many intellectuals and artists, from William and Henry James to Sarah Bernhardt and Emma Calvé, expressed the utmost interest for his teaching. Needless to say, Joplin was at the Exposition.

In a nutshell, Treemonisha’s libretto exposes an original Socialist vision, in which Indian nonviolence replaces class struggle. All this was no mere theory. Joplin carried with him atrocious memories from his childhood. Little has been written on them, for they are taken for granted, as partaking of the general climate of violence and brutality in nineteenth-century rural America, and also for lack of specific research.

As already said, Texarkana was a rich city in the middle of poverty. It quickly grew, thanks to the powerful impulse of investors like Ghio, and attracted many jobless people. These came partly from the impoverished county villages, with their slavery nostalgia and Klan-like feelings, partly from even poorer nearby areas, especially Arkansas. As the railroad connected Texarkana to Hot Springs, a daily flow of vagabonds filled the station, sometimes triggering popular request for police repression. The crime rate rose, and hair-rising incidents took place when the mob resorted to get rid of a black (presumed) culprit. Texarkana held the dubious distinction as a place where blacks were not hanged; they were burned alive. One such event has come to us in a detailed chronicle, issued in the Pittsburg Dispatch, March 13, 1892, illuminated by two large-size drawings I chose not to include. A man called Edward McCoy, charged with rape of a white woman, was drenched in oil; the woman lit the match. The witness, Mr. J. C. Ellis, reports in horror:

I met C. H. [sic] Smith, manager of Ghio’s Opera House, about 9 o’clock in the morning of the day that the frightful tragedy took place. He asked me if I wanted to see a roasting. [122]

The rest of the description is revolting.

Joplin may have not been there in 1892, but the article indicates that “roasting” was by then a common name for a common usage. McCoy’s stake, in particular, triggered a movement of Bowie County black residents who started planning relocation to Africa. [123] A protest meeting was held in St. Louis on April 12. [124] The shock was so great, the Sedalia Weekly Bazoo devoted almost the entirety of page 5, on February 7, 1893, to recalling similar atrocities from the latest four decades as a memento.

As disturbing as all this can be to us, it was not to Mr. H. C. Smith. He quickly reverted to more happy-go-lucky Negro routines, as we learn from the Wichita Daily Eagle of the following May 17:

The last minstrel company of the season, at the Crawford Grand, will be the New Orleans Minstrels, which is booked at the Crawford for tomorrow evening. In speaking of this company the Texarkana Daily Democrat says: “It was really a treat to witness the performance of the New Orleans Minstrels at Ghio’s Opera House last night. True, the bill was not as lengthy as some would have desired it to be, but it was bright and sparkling from the funny gags told in the first part until the hilarious farce that closed the performance. Mr. Neff, as one of the principle end men, is full of original wit, and possesses that happy faculty of telling a gag in a manner that keeps everybody in good humor. Foley and Reilly make a strong team, while the female impersonations of Mr. Marshall were simply grand. Manager Smith has booked the company for a return date in March.” [125]

At the same time, Texarkana sported a record number of churches. The Galveston News of March 6, 1877 already wrote that the three-year-old town “is a little city of churches now. The Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics are at work; the Presbyterians have a church, and the Baptists will follow.” [126] Here we can see the deepest seed of Joplin’s skeptical attitude about religious institutions, as well as of his turning to a churchless cult. In Treemonisha, the preacher is called Alltalk for all he does is talking. In the majestic Act I choir on redemption, Joplin takes the congregation’s feelings very seriously — it makes one of the most touching passages of the opera — yet the kidnapping takes place while everybody sings they are redeemed. A hint at Texarkanans’ double moral standards.

There is more of Texarkana in Joplin’s opera than it has been supposed. McCoy, too, like Treemonisha, was tied with ropes and gagged. Joplin chose not to stage anything as grim as a pyre or a gibbet, yet throwing somebody in bondage over a wasp nest would obviously cause death by anaphylaxis.

The Wild Berry

Calling Treemonisha a “Socialist opera,” as I have done, implies not only that Joplin was exposed to such ideas at some early stage of his life, but that he had stuck to them for decades. This may look like a risky statement regarding a man whose private papers are lost. Yet, there is at least one later incident in Joplin’s life that clearly links him to Socialist circles.

On December 30, 1905 a bomb kills Frank Steunenberg, former Idaho Governor from 1897 to 1900. The act is soon interpreted as a retaliation, for Steunenberg had called Federal troops to repress disorders involving union miners. Two days after the murder, a Thomas Hogan, also known as Harry Orchard, is arrested and charged with first-degree homicide, on overwhelming evidence. Facing capital punishment, he is advised that a detailed confession, revealing who ordered the murder, might save his life. Hogan resists but then undersigns a confession accusing three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners: Charles Moyer, George Pettibone, and, the most popular, William “Big Bill” Haywood, then running for Governor with the Socialist Party. On February 17, 1906, the three are arrested. Idaho’s “trial of the century” draws enormous popular and press interest; Socialist militants secure massive support for Haywood.

It is in this context that the earliest known reference to a man called Owen Spendthrift appears in the Washington Post, April 30, 1907:

Will Be in Evidence in New York Moyer–Haywood Parade.
Special to The Washington Post.
New York, April 29. — Labor union members who are to parade in this city next Saturday, and then have a meeting at the Grand Central Palace to protest against the arrest and trial of Moyer and Haywood on the charge of murdering ex-Gov. Frank Steunenberg, of Idaho, are all expected to wear campaign buttons bearing the legend, “I am an undesirable citizen.” Thousands of these buttons have been prepared by the Socialistic [sic] Literature Company, and are now awaiting distribution.
The Workingmen’s Singing Societies will while away the time during the march by singing “Are They Going to Hang My Papa,” words and music written tor the occasion, and already bound in black covers. The Socialist song writer is “Owen Spendthrift.” His picture is on the black cover of his song, with name and address underneath, and it is the likeness of a most prosperous appearing person, in spite of his name and ballad, which, in part, follows:
“Comrade, can yon tell me what flag it is that waves,”
The speaker thus addressed a motley crowd,
“Where law protects the millionaire to be obeyed by slaves?”
Rose a murmur then in chorus long and loud.
The meeting was assembled, the miners all were there,
Many protest resolutions had been read.
Through that tempest of confusion came a child with golden hair,
And, sobbing, thus so pleadingly she said:
“Are they going to hang my papa? He’s innocent, I know.
He never could do any wrong, he is so good and true.
It surely will kill dear mamma, and break my heart in two.
Are they going to hang my papa?” pleads this babe with eyes of blue.
Tearful with emotion, he raised one bony hand,
The pleading child, the speaker gaunt and tall,
So silent in his movements, like a spirit in command,
Till the calm of death spread o’er that crowded hall,
“Arouse, ye slaves, awaken! What will your answer be?
Are we union men to suffer every wrong?
If they murder honest Haywood, they will have to murder me” —
Then rang a voice above that mighty throng.
(Chorus) [127]

The quotation marks around the author’s name are in the original. Hence it was known that “Owen Spendthrift” was an ironic alias, perhaps intended to shelter the author from assaults. Probably to avoid passing for coward, however, he placed a circled headshot of himself on the song cover, visible in the lower right area.

Are They Going to Hang My Papa sheet music

Figure 15. “Are They Going to Hang My Papa?”, words and music by
“Owen Spendthrift,” original cover (cropped).

The song was copyrighted in February 1907 with Owen Spendthrift of Saint Louis, Missouri, listed as composer, author, and publisher. On May 18, three more songs were copyrighted by the same person, namely, “Too Old,” “What Will Their Answers Be,” and Scott Joplin’s song, “When Your Hair Is Like the Snow.”

In court, Thomas Hogan repeated his accusations, but no further evidence was produced. Haywood and Pettibone were acquitted in separate sentences; charges against Moyer were dropped. Hogan was sentenced to death, later converted to life in prison. [128] As for Haywood, [129] an already popular figure, he was to rise to hero status. In 1918, he was arrested again for sabotaging war industries, and sentenced to thirty years. In 1921 he ran away to Russia, while out on bail. He died in Moscow in 1928; his ashes were buried partly in Chicago and partly in the Kremlin, next to John Reed’s.

“Are You Going to Hang My Papa?” enjoyed wide, albeit brief, circulation. On May 5, 1907, the New York Times reported that it was sung as part of a demonstration in support of Haywood that included 20,000 people. [130] Tomorrow Magazine of 1907, on page 82, called Spendthrift “the leading Socialist song writer,” adding that “others are urged to follow” — which suggests he may have been the only one. The song then sank into oblivion. [131]

Joplin scholars have long thought Owen Spendthrift to be a real name. Actually, it was a nom de plume for Frederick Forrest Berry, a poet, writer, and pamphletist. There is no need to prove that Berry and Spendthrift were one and the same man; he even conflated both names on occasion. A marriage license accessible on, issued in St. Louis on January 11, 1908 authorizes “to solemnize Marriage between F. F. Spendthrift Berry of the city of St. Louis and State of Mo., who is over the age of twenty-one years, and Blanche Burkhardt of O’Fallon, in the County of St. Louis and State of Ill., who is over the age of eighteen years.” As the ages of 21 and 18 are pre-printed, the document only proves that Berry was born before January 11, 1887; exact birth and death dates, however, are still wanting — has too many candidates.

That marriage was not exactly a matter of twin souls. The Edwardsville Intelligencer, a newspaper from St. Clair county, Illinois, reports on June 11, 1909:

Mrs. Blanche Berry of O’Fallon has asked the circuit court at Belleville to divorce her from Owen Spendthrift Berry on the charge of cruelty, because, she says, he forbade her to attend church and made fun of her when she prayed at home. [132]

No further details are available on their ménage. Instead, a short pamphlet from the same year is. The Calloused Palm consists of a mere fourteen pages, plus seven for the introduction. As far as we know, it is Berry’s earliest publication under his real name; again, it must have been a private issue, as no publisher is indicated. The author is known to have used the expression “a champion of the calloused palm” to describe John P. Burke (1884–1966), a noted union leader he admired.

Berry’s major literary effort came in 1910, when he produced a book that is still available: The Torch of Reason, or Humanity’s God, issued thanks to the financial support of a generous “good friend and comrade, Peter Herbert, of Cincinnati.” It is a long (over 500 pages) literary work, aiming at winning the readers’ hearts to Socialism, not by means of complex historical and economic reasoning, but through a fascinating narrative appealing to non-intellectual readers. It is largely inspired to the literary style of Berry’s friend, comrade, and role model, Jack London, except that the adventurous plot is merely an appealing frame for characters to unfold long tirades expressing Berry’s views — a bit like in the Marquis de Sade’s work, La philosophie dans le boudoir, a book where, incidentally, the very expression “the torch of reason” is found.

Berry was no literary genius. His prose was colorful but bombastic, and often resorted to a shameless tear-jerking rhetorics, mainly intended to expose the cruelty of capitalism. Here is one paragraph at random, from the introduction:

The author of this book is a man. If you admire a coward you will not fall in love with him. He has dared to have his say. He has had the courage to stand alone. He has spoken out from the wilderness, and his voice shall be heard forsooth from the very housetops. He has placed man above the dollar. He has painted from life. His models have lived and breathed and suffered the long travail that portends the birth of the new world that is to be. This artist’s brush is a flaming torch, and his soul is a fountain of love-fire unquenchable and exhaustless. [133]

The book was copyrighted again in 1911 and 1912, but did not make a celebrity out of Berry — major newspapers virtually ignored him throughout his life. It hosts an interesting advertisement:

Torch of Reason advertisement

Figure 16. Advertising for songs published
by “Owen Spendthrift,” issued inside
F. F. Berry’s book, The Torch of Reason.

Three of the four songs published in 1907, including Joplin’s one, are offered for sale at bargain price. As one can notice, the fourth title, “What Will Their Answer Be,” is omitted. The songs are indicated as “By the Author of The Torch of Reason,” that is, the old alias is no longer in use. Also, they are explicitly associated to a Socialist book and sold as a package, seemingly on the assumption that they may interest its readers. In fact, the blurbs stress the connection, thus advertising “When Your Hair Is Like the Snow” not as a nostalgia-laden drawing room ballad, but as a political anti-war song. (Actually, the lyric introduces both topics, the former being evoked in the title and cover image, the latter being given the last word.) And finally, Joplin’s name is nowhere to be found.

This writer could not examine all four items, however it is clear that “Are They Going to Hang My Papa?” is a far cry, in style and inspiration, from “When Your Hair Is Like the Snow.” The latter is a neglected gem in Joplin’s best operatic vein; no hint of ragtime, but a consistently high inspiration, somewhat redolent of Treemonisha, then under construction, and well worthy of it. The former is a tricky and slightly syncopated but utterly uninspired pop song, sporting a complicated vocal line, stringing together a chain of trivial two-bar turns of phrase. If Berry composed the music, as per copyright credits, all he achieved was to display the wide gulf between himself and Joplin. This is not to rule out that Joplin had a hand, for instance as arranger, in this or any other song of Berry’s; such an issue calls for a separate study.

By 1910–12, when the advertisement appeared in the book, Joplin and Berry had parted — the composer was in New York City; the lyricist in Latonia, Kentucky. But the omission of Joplin’s name suggests a deeper divide. When Joplin was asked to set Berry’s words to music, he must have appreciated their pacifist content. It is not so sure that he also endorsed other aspects of Berry’s personality, such as his faith in revolution — which may easily slip into violence — or his aggressive, often arrogant verbal style. And besides, Berry was no easy man to deal with. When he wrote Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs a typically heated letter pleading support for The Torch of Reason, the latter’s answer contained the following pointed sentence: “I can now understand why the people around St. Louis said that anybody that had anything to do with you would sooner or later regret it.” [134]

Whatever the (still obscure) details of the Joplin–Berry personal relationship, the fact remains that Joplin interacted with left-wing people and circles in at least one documented instance. The rest of Berry’s career falls outside the scope of this essay. [135]

Old Bottle, New Wine

All European or American composers who tried their hand at writing their homeland’s first national opera faced the problem of pouring the contents of an ethnic identity into the old, tried-and-true package of Italian opera. This involved replacement of language, plot, costumes, dances, and all paraphernalia of the genre. Their revered polar star was Der Freischütz. In it, Weber showed this was feasible with the German Volkstum, thus paving the way to Glinka, Smetana, or Moniuszko. Once such mission was accomplished, second-generation national composers could follow existing national models, gradually drifting from the original mold. Glinka looked at Bellini, but Mussorgsky looked at Glinka. The non-national alternative was writing just another Italian opera, based on just another Italian libretto, about historical or fictional characters.

There is no doubt that Treemonisha was the first-generation national opera of the African-Americans. It has all the required elements. There is ethnic identity in characters, plot, location, scenery, costumes, dances, melodies, and rhythms. As for language, the libretto has two: English and BEV.

However, these facts per se do not imply more than a indirect analogy to Weber, a model that, in Joplin’s times, was about ninety years old. A more specific relationship needs to be proven. Albrecht reports several similarities between Der Freischütz and Treemonisha, but mixes them with passing analogies and quotations from other operas, which blurs the picture. Joplin may have hinted at many things, but Weber’s work was his main model.

The evidence that suddenly made me see the light, many years ago, is found in “Treemonisha in Peril.” Simon calls aloud numbers for the conjurors to throw the victim on the wasp nest: “One... Two...” How many famous operas have somebody counting aloud during a secret gathering in the wilderness?

Of course, the similarity between such passage and Kaspar smelting bullets in the Wolf’s Den could be just another isolated quotation — a bow to Weber, as the opening of Porgy and Bess is a bow to Verdi. But it is not. First, Treemonisha is packed with references to Der Freischütz, although most are not apparent. Second — and most important — its basic structure is shaped after it. This is what counts. As all operas are linked in genealogical chains, this or that detail from Der Freischütz can also be found in Mozart or Wagner. In fact, Weber drew from Mozart, as Wagner drew from Weber. Which link of the genealogical chain is the right one in our case? There is no way to answer, as long as we only see isolated details.

For Joplin, Treemonisha was a unique chance to express his Weltanschauung, and this forms its conceptual content. Its container was the national opera prototype — Der Freischütz. But what is the conceptual content of Der Freischütz?

Recalling its plot here would be superfluous, but to realize what an inordinate amount of weapons, violence, death, evil, hate, nightmares, and devils it contains.

Act I. As the curtain rises, we hear a shot. A competition just ended. Kilian, a peasant, defeated Max, a forester, usually the best shooter. Max is humiliated; Kilian and the villagers offend him. Cuno, the hereditary forester, is worried, for Max has been making poor scoring for some time. Tomorrow there is a competition before Prince Ottokar, Max must win to win the hand of his beloved Agathe and the succession as hereditary forester, but he is discouraged. People dance; Max refuses. Enter Kaspar, another forester, and an ominous figure. He hands Max his gun, points to an eagle flying high, and has him shoot. The eagle falls dead. The bullet was charmed, Kaspar says. If Max comes at midnight at the Wolf’s Glen, a horrifying place, they will smelt seven charmed bullets; Max will win the trial, Agathe’s hand, and the forester office. Max is disturbed but accepts.

Act II. Agathe, in her room, is waiting for Max and has bad forebodings. A hermit in the forest said that, in case of danger, her bridal wreath will shelter her. Even happy cousin Ännchen cannot cheer her up. Her ancestor’s picture, hanging against the wall, falls down. Agathe’s fear grows. At last Max comes but says he must leave — shot a deer in the Wolf’s Glen and must take it. It is a haunted place; the girls warn him in vain. At midnight, at the Wolf’s Glen, Kaspar calls for help Samiel, the Black Huntsman (that is, the devil), and prepares the casting of seven bullets; six go straight to the mark, Samiel drives the seventh. Max arrives; his mother’s ghost warns him to give up. Samiel conjures up the image of Agathe drowning herself in despair at Max’s failure. The casting takes place.

Act III. The morning after, Agathe has more forebodings, after a nightmarish dream. She gets dressed — she will marry Max, if he passes the test — and receives the bridal wreath. Yet in the box there is a funeral wreath, which worsens her fears. Meanwhile, Max and Kaspar have already shot six bullets; Max is left with the seventh, the devil’s one. The trial begins. Max points to a dove. Agathe steps in, accompanied by the Hermit, a holy man, and screams not to shoot, for she is the dove. But Max has pulled the trigger. Samiel redirects the bullet to Agathe; she falls down, but her wreath deflects the bullet, which kills Kaspar. The devil had no power over Max, who had come to the Wolf’s Glen not out of his will, but as Kaspar tempted him; hence Kaspar is the devil’s prey. Prince Ottokar asks for explanations. Max confesses, and the enraged Prince banishes him but then, at the Hermit’s intercession, forgives. The trial is canceled and replaced by a year’s probation, after which Max will marry Agathe. All sing a thanksgiving prayer.

Joplin, the soft-spoken, nonviolent herald of progress, the Buddhist who revered all living beings, surely admired Weber’s music, but must have felt nothing but disgust for this blood-stained story, full of rifles, senseless killings of animals, savage irrationality, terror, devils, and death. Negative feelings dominate throughout, save for a few secondary characters — the Hermit, Ännchen — and the happy ending. How could he cast his discourse on peace into this mold?

The problem here goes beyond a mere form/content conflict, as relevant as this can be. It goes straight to the crux of national opera. The very nature of nationalism implies that one’s nation, its identity, traditions, and values be regarded as sacred, above reproach, and deserving to be defended in principle — “My country, right or wrong.” Der Freischütz is very much so. It celebrates the hard core of German identity, with its inner ghosts, nightmares, and worship of weapons, which were to give their grim fruits a century later. Despite its slightly incongruous happy ending — after all, the devil cannot win on stage — the composer and librettist do not distance themselves from the horrific cult the story celebrates. The devil’s bullet is evil, but bullets in general seem not that bad.

Joplin, on the other hand, voices a national identity, but no nationalism. Nowhere does he say that everything black is good or that blacks are better. On the contrary, he says that black cultural heritage has lights and shadows. It should be partly preserved and cherished (the ring shout) and partly dropped (voodoo). He is selective toward his own heritage.

This said, Joplin is also entitled to turn the same approach to German culture. Its musical tradition is good; its death instincts are bad. Interwoven with its sundry explicit and hidden meanings, Treemonisha carries a universal message: Be critical of your roots.

Joplin’s filter allows him to adopt Der Freischütz as an empty box, and pour his African-American contents into it. He is neither alone nor original in doing so. The entire history of black composers in the Americas, at least since Domigos Caldas Barbosa in the eighteenth century, shows repeated evidence, in different times and places, of such cuckoo’s nest strategy. First, black musicians learn to master technical and conceptual tools of European notated music, to then turn them into vehicles of their own African-derived contents. In this, as in most aspects of black music history, the USA lagged behind the rest of the continent till Joplin and his generation. He seemingly acted like a pioneer in a void, unaware of earlier efforts by American composers, whether of African descent (José White, Chiquinha Gonzaga) or not (Manuel Saumell, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Aniceto Ortega).

Once Joplin had resolved to adopt Der Freischütz as a reference frame in spite of his opposing content, he could carry this strategy one step forward. Many specific elements and details from the original are preserved, but in reverse fashion. In fact, Treemonisha can be regarded as a Freischütz upside down.

The overall structure of the two operas is largely identical:

  1. Both are in three acts.
  2. As per Aristotle, each opera tells one story in one day and one place — in both cases, a countryside village and the nearby wilderness.
  3. Morning, afternoon, and night are given one act each.
  4. The basic events of each act run parallel in both operas:
    1. Act I is a sketch of social life in the village, including a traditional dance and an ancestry tale. The villain offers charmed objects but is soon isolated. The subsequent crime is introduced.
    2. Act II takes place in the wilderness, in a haunted place where belief in evil forces looms large. It hosts a secret ritual, wild beasts, numbers counted aloud in a menacing tone, and the appearance of the devil. In the climactic moment, the main characters do not sing (in Der Freischütz they speak; Treemonisha is gagged).
    3. Act III returns to the village. A woman fears that the worst is about to come. Then events take a positive twist. The evil perpetrated in Act II is exposed; a trial takes place before the whole community. Punishment is proposed. Then somebody speaks on behalf of the culprits. An enlightened judgement follows, and rational thought leads to the rejection of black magic. The finale expresses collective happiness.

It is obvious, that if the plot is summarized in these terms, it holds good for both operas.

Here, however, is a table showing where and how Joplin reverses the original:

Der FreischützTreemonisha
Act IThe charmed object is accepted.The charmed objects are rejected.
The community practices violent competition and ritual derision.The community practices solidarity and mutual help.
Dance takes place amidst tensions and resentment.Dance takes place amidst smiles.
An ancestry tale is told about cruelty of a man and killing of a deer.An ancestry tale is told of a child’s rescue and respect for a tree.
It ends with the villain’s revenge plan.It ends with the community’s rescue plan.
Act IIThe devil’s appearance inspires terror.The devil’s appearance inspires laughter.
Wild beasts are frightening.Wild beasts are frightened.
Act IIIPrince Ottokar is the village’s natural authority.Treemonisha is chosen by the community.
The final chorus is a religious statement.The final chorus is a political agenda statement.
ThroughoutAnimals are killed.Animals are respected.
Wreaths are freely made.Wreaths must not be made of the sacred tree.
Violence happens on stage.Violence is absent or happens off stage.
Loads of weapons.No weapons.
Death looms large.Death is absent.

Two elements require extra comments. One is a tiny detail, by which Joplin seems to wink at opera lovers. Der Freischütz has invisible evil spirits uttering a mysterious call in the Wolf’s Glen. In the original libretto spelling is “Uhuii;” its English spelling would be, more or less, “Hoo hee.” When the conjurors meet in the forest, their call is “Hee hoo.” Again, Albrecht noticed the similarity, but treated it as just another quotation. It is much more than that — it is an encoded key. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, Joplin’s reversal operation could not be better hidden, and yet placed before our very eyes. Was this a message to friends who would know? To Alfred Ernst? To good old Prof. Weiss? To posterity? Who knows?

Further deep implications can be found in the reversed timing. In Der Freischütz, the sequence of the three acts is afternoon, night, morning. In Treemonisha it is morning, afternoon, night. Thus, the former ends in the morning, the latter at night. The resulting meaning is an opposite one as well. In Weber, the morning marks the return to the light of faith and good sense after the darkness of evil. In Joplin, the first two acts depict the daily life in a black rural community with plenty of realistic details. Act III has nothing whatsoever to do with reality. It stages a situation that Joplin never saw in his life, but would have loved to see: common people acclaiming an intellectual as their leader. It takes place at night, for that is his own political dream.

Like all utopians, Joplin fully displays his sharp thought when describing and analizing reality and injustice. He slips into fantasizing as soon as he tries to sketch the imaginary society that would be free of such shortcomings. In his case, a society of equals voting en masse for a very intelligent and/or instructed member. In the real world, such things simply do not happen.


Did Joplin coinceive Treemonisha as grand opera? In the extended essay accompanying the recording of his new orchestration, [136] Rick Benjamin, an authority on theater orchestra scores, answers with a round “No.” Sure, Joplin once said that Treemonisha is ”grand opera,“ but this statement, Benjamin argues, needs to be contextualized. He rather champions the eleven instruments and piano format against symphony orchestra and standard opera scale, and makes a fascinating and thought-provoking case for it.

I think the opposite, while also welcoming Benjamin’s version as an extraordinary contribution. I am convinced that Joplin said “grand opera” not in the European sense, à la Meyerbeer, but in the sense commonly accepted in the USA and exemplified by the 1883 San Antonio staging of Der Freischütz — a show for a full-sized, non-downscaled orchestra, choir, and company. Had he been given the choice, he would opt for a full instrumentation. Perhaps not a huge, late-Romantic one, à la Mahler, but the medium-sized one that Gunther Schuller chose after personally taking measurements of as many Broadway theater orchestra pits as he could. [137] Then, he would have likely accepted accommodating the apple of his eye in smaller venues, for which the Benjamin instrumentation is certainly suited and effective.

It is a known fact that there is no single “true” orchestration of the Concerto in F, for Gershwin adapted it to different circumstances. Joplin would have reasonably done the same, and for the same reasons. I cannot imagine him being offered a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House and insisting: “No! I want eleven instruments and piano.” Obviously, he would have written (or commissioned) a thicker score for such a production. Hence, both Schuller’s and Benjamin’s orchestrations are valid and offer (for different venues) realistic facets of Joplin’s masterpiece. There may well be others as well.

As we dig deeper into Treemonisha’s gold mine of layered meanings, further questions pile up. For instance, the story takes place in this John Smith plantation where, as it seems, nobody is very busy. In Act I, the cornhuskers postpone working “the whole day long,” in order to dance “We’re Going Around.” In Act II, we hear a horn call signaling that the working day is over, soon after a lazy vocal quartet of male workers, over a lazier banjo accompaniment, stating that “resting is very fine.” It is hardly surprising that people tied to forced labor until recently were depicted as thinking that work does not make one free. (Would you dare say the opposite in German?) But this explicit, repeated association sounds, again, like a political statement in which Joplin, the enlightened country gentleman, expresses his refrain from the productive obsession an early role model of his, John Philip Sousa, also pointed to as typical of the white man in Dwellers of the Western World (1910). And one is led to wonder whether Joplin were actually hinting at Adolf Douai’s 1887 essay, Labor and Work, which begins:

We state a difference between labor and work; we think that this difference ought to be observed in all writings on political economy. Labor is the opposite of capital, work is human activity for the purpose of useful production. Labor is working force employed by capitalists and exploited by them; work is a much more general and comprehensive expression. Labor is at war with natural laws, with the destiny of mankind, being involuntary work for others. The term work ought to be reserved for voluntary activity to one’s own boat, and the welfare of society. [138]

Or perhaps he read a Communist book, The Right to Be Lazy (1883), by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, who, incidentally, was very proud of his drop of African ancestry. [139] Lafargue was born in Santiago de Cuba; his grandfather from Bordeaux had married a mulatto girl in Santo Domingo. His father had spent his youth in New Orleans.

As an opera conveying a religious, as well as a political meaning, Treemonisha can also be described as a sermon. It opens up with some wise advice, develops into a parable to show how ineffective wrongdoing can be, and ends up with two “Lectures.” To whom was Joplin preaching? At first glance, an all-Negro opera, written in a segregated world, obviously seems addressed to black patrons. Joplin is primarily preaching nonviolence to them — and with good reason, as James Reese Europe’s tragic death would soon make clear. But, as it is shaped after Der Freischütz, then he must have hoped that, sooner or later, it could be staged for white opera fans, some of whom could appreciate its thick net of symbols, allusions, and quotations; perhaps even its bouleversement of a revered classic.

Today such a dichotomy should be irrelevant. Like every masterpiece, Treemonisha is a gift to humankind. But then, one wonders whether his daring radical rejection of violence should be the ultimate reason of Joplin’s belated, hesitating, and still incomplete acceptance as the first absolute genius of American music. Instead of singing manifest destiny and patriotism, death penalty and the right of carrying weapons, he taught a lesson for which everybody ought to be forever grateful to him — violence must be extirpated by means of nonviolence. This message has been largely ignored in his nation, and, therefore, is still very much up to date and worth being kept alive. After all, the evil side of humans may always be hidden in some Texas bush.

Many thanks to: Lynn Abbott, Bianca Maria Antolini, the late Nan Bostick, Bryan Cather, “Perfessor” Bill Edwards, Ina Fandrich, Ira Gitler, Ragnar Hellspong, Gustavo Mauleón Rodríguez, Arne Neegard, Bruce Boyd Raeburn, and Gunther Schuller. Special thanks to Edward Berlin and Katja von Schuttenbach, both of whom kindly revised and corrected the first draft.


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  • Rowe, Beverly J. Historic Texarkana: An Illustrated History. San Antonio: Historical Publishing Network, 2009. Also reproduced in (accessed January 23, 2012).
  • “Texarkana, Texas.” The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. (accessed January 23, 2012).
  • “Texarkana, TX.” In The Handbook of Texas Online. Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association. (accessed January 23, 2012).


[1] Theodore Albrecht, “African, Autobiographical, and Earlier Operatic Elements in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha,” in African Perspectives: Pre-Colonial History, Anthropology, and Ethnomusicology: Essays in Honor of Gerhard Kubik, ed. Regine Allgayer-Kaufmann, 215–40, Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft 5 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2008).

[2] Here, a thesis is developed which I had anticipated in an e-mail discussion of September 24, 2007 that involved, among other jazz scholars, Dan Morgenstern.

[3] Theodore Albrecht, “Julius Weiss: Scott Joplin’s First Piano Teacher,” College Music Symposium 19, No. 2 (Fall, 1979): 89–105.

[4] John Butt, “Choral Music,” in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, ed. Jim Samson, 213–36 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[5] Bianca Maria Antolini, “Fortunato Santini and the Performance of Ancient Music in Italy in the First Half of the 19th Century” (unpublished paper, 2011).

[6] Ronald L. Davis and Lota M. Spell, “Music,” in The Handbook of Texas Online, (Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association), (accessed January 23, 2012).

[7] Not to be confused with the “Forty-Niners,” a term generally associated in the USA with the California Gold Rush.

[8] “Hon. Gustav M. Schleicher Expected Monday,” Galveston Daily News, July 7, 1878, 1.

[9] “Texarkana, TX,” in The Handbook of Texas Online, (Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association), (accessed January 23, 2012).

[10] Cecil Harper, Jr., “Bowie County,” in The Handbook of Texas Online (Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association), (accessed January 23, 2012).

[11] “Texarkana, TX,” in The Handbook of Texas Online, (Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association), (accessed January 23, 2012).

[12] US GenWeb Archives, (accessed January 23, 2012).

[13] Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Texarkana, Texas,” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[14] “Heavy Rains Have Fallen,” Houston Daily Post, January 15, 1899, 6.

[15] Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, “Perspective Map of Texarkana, Texas, and Arkansas,” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[16] Albrecht, “Julius Weiss,” 94.

[17] Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[18] Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1820–1902. Microfilm publication M259_55. 93 rolls. Record Group 36, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[19] “Brief Mention,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, April 23, 1874, 1.

[20] In all quoted passages from period newspapers, orthography of German names is reproduced as is. The author’s text follows modern rules.

[21] “A New Singing Association,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, September 5, 1874, 1.

[22] “Concordia,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, November 28, 1874, 1.

[23] “Coming Events,” Syracuse Daily Journal, September 13, 1894, 6.

[24] “The German Mannerchor,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, December 1, 1874, 1.

[25] “Jacob Pobe’s Funeral,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, July 23, 1877, 1.

[26] “Behind Prison Bars,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, August 2, 1877, 1.

[27] “Personal,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, September 13, 1877, 1.

[28] Albrecht, “Julius Weiss,” 97.

[29] “Musical,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, December 1, 1877, 4.

[30] “Changes and Improvements,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, September 11, 1877, 1.

[31] “New Today,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, February 12, 1878, 4.

[32] “Our Manerchor [sic] Abroad,” Port Jervis Evening Gazette, August 21, 1880, 1.

[33] Port Jervis Evening Gazette, January 19, 1878, 2.

[34] “Man and Money Missing,” New York Herald, September 16, 1889, 5.

[35] “A Commercial Sensation,” Fort Worth Gazette, September 14, 1889, 3.

[36] “Skipped with $37,000,” Bradford Era, September 16, 1889, 1.

[37] “How Canada Grows,” Omaha Daily Bee, September 16, 1889, 1.

[38] “Personal,” Galveston Daily News, August 23, 1889, 2.

[39] “Hotel Arrivals,” Galveston Daily News, March 26, 1888, 4.

[40] “The Texarkana Failures,” Fort Worth Daily Gazette, September 17, 1889, 4.

[41] “Texarkana,” Fort Worth Daily Gazette, September 17, 1889, 7.

[42] Omaha Daily Bee, September 21, 1889, 4.

[43] Albrecht, “Julius Weiss.”

[44] “National Saengerbund,” Omaha Sunday Bee, February 16, 1890, 1.

[45] “Hotel Arrivals,” Fort Worth Daily Gazette, May 9, 1890, 2.

[46] Houston Directory, 1890–91, (Houston, TX: Morrison & Fourmy, 1890).

[47] Houston Directory, 1892–93, (Houston, TX: Morrison & Fourmy, 1892).

[48] “The Ursuline Academy Commencement,” Galveston Daily News, June 24, 1891, 5.

[49] Albrecht, “Julius Weiss,” 92.

[50] All data from (accessed January 23, 2012).

[51] “Weiss Store Bankrupt,” Galveston Daily News, May 28, 1905, 6.

[52] From RootsWeb, “The Earliest Known Photo of Texarkana,” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[53] RootsWeb’s WorldConnect Project, “David Porterfield Descendents,” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[54] Beverly J. Rowe, Historic Texarkana: An Illustrated History (San Antonio: Historical Publishing Network, 2009), 5–6. Also reproduced in

[55] RootsWeb’s WorldConnect Project, “David Porterfield Descendents,” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[56] The facts about Antonio Ghio conflate sundry sources, including and multiple pieces of news from such period newspapers as the Fort Worth Daily Gazette and the Galveston City News.

[57] A movie by the same title was released in 1963, directed by George Marshall and starring Jackie Gleason as Corinne’s eccentric father. Grandpa Anthony Ghio appears as well, played by Charlie Ruggles. (He is seen campaigning for re-election — a script anachronism.) It is now available in DVD format.

[58] Edward Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 9–10.

[59] By the time I attended high school in Italy, this incident had vanished from all textbooks. I doubt it was ever reintroduced.

[60] “Land League Meeting,” Galveston Daily News, April 30, 1881, 1.

[61] Rowe, Historic Texarkana, 67–68.

[62] “At Mooringsport,” Shreveport Progress, May 9, 1896, 2.

[63] Rowe, Historic Texarkana, 67–68.

[64] Betty Meador Sharp, “The History of Texarkana USA,” RootsWeb,


[66] Perspective map of Texarkana, Texas and Arkansas (Milwaukee: Henry Wellge & Co., 1888). Available online from Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,

[67] Advertisement, New York Dramatic Mirror, September 1, 1883, 11.

[68] “Loss by Fire,” Princeton Union, May 26, 1898, 2.

[69] Muriel Baily, “May Vokes Tells of Touring in Texas,” San Francisco Call, October 10, 1897, 21.

[70] A period behavior, true. Yet, in April 2009, Victoria Adams, of Spice Girls fame, came to Milan with his husband, soccer star David Beckham, and pointed to a mansion she deemed suited for them. It was the Castello Sforzesco. With such caveat in mind, however, some of May Vokes’s remarks seem credible.

[71] Muriel Baily, “May Vokes Tells of Touring in Texas,” San Francisco Call, October 10, 1897, 21.

[72] New York Dramatic Mirror, March 20, 1897.

[73] New York Dramatic Mirror, December 28, 1895 and January 11, 1896.

[74] “Texarkana,” New York Dramatic Mirror May 12, 1883, 4.

[75] Advertisement, Waco Daily Examiner, December 17, 1882, 4.

[76] “Arkansas,” New York Dramatic Mirror, April 14, 1883, 4.

[77] “Kiralfy, Imre,” Exploring 20th Century London, (accessed January 23, 2012).

[78] Fort Worth Daily Gazette, March 22, 1896.

[79] Marcello Piras, “Il treno e il banjo, la caccia e la confessione: il teatro pianistico di Scott Joplin” (lecture, Casa del Jazz, Rome, March 10, 2009).

[80] Advertisement, San Antonio Light, May 11, 1883, 1.

[81] “Auction Sale of Seats,” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 15, 1884, 1.

[82] “Local News,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 22, 1893, 5.

[83] John Ogasapian and N. Lee Orr, Music of the Gilded Age (Westport, CT: The Greenwood Press, 2007), 142.

[84] St. Louis Republic, August 28, 1900.

[85] See, for instance, the biography of Henry Lee Billups in Frank Lincoln Mather, Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent (Chicago, 1915); also accessible from Wiley College,

[86] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 28, 1901. Berlin gives the newspaper as the St. Louis Globe Democrat in King of Ragtime, but has corrected himself in correspondence with the author.

[87] “The Musical Amateur,” St. Louis Republic, February 24, 1901, part II, 5.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ernst C. Krohn, “The Development of the Symphony Orchestra in St. Louis,” Proceedings of the Music Teachers National Association 18 (1924): 81–2. Albrecht, cit., drew from it.

[90] “Music from St. Louis,” Kansas City Journal, November 22, 1899, 10.

[91] “St. Louisan May Lead Wagnerian Festival,” St. Louis Republic, March 5, 1902, 1.

[92] E. R. Kroeger, “On the Condition of Musical Affairs in St. Louis,” St. Louis Republic, April 27, 1902, part III, 4.

[93] “At the Theaters This Week — Coming Bills,” St. Louis Republic, December 5, 1901, 8.

[94] Advertisement, St. Louis Republic, November 25, 1900, part II, 7.

[95] Jeffrey Green, “Do We Really Know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?” (paper, Black & Asian Studies Association Conference, London, June 27, 2009).

[96] Landmarks Association of St. Louis, “William Albert Swasey FAIA (1863?–1940),“ (accessed January 23, 2012).

[97] Such limits are found in all period English music. A sarcastic George Bernard Shaw once wrote that he knew “a lady who keeps a typewriting establishment. Under my advice she is completing arrangements for supplying middle sections and recapitulations for overtures and symphonies at twopence a bar, on being supplied with the first section and coda.” London music in 1888–89 as heard by Corno di Bassetto (later known as Bernard Shaw) with some further autobiographical particulars (London: Constable, 1937). Also at (the typo is in the URL) (accessed January 23, 2012).

[98] Rudi Blesh, “Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist,” in The Collected Works of Scott Joplin, ed. Vera Brodsky Lawrence (New York: New York Public Library, 1971), xxxvii.

[99] Albrecht, “African, Autobiographical, and Earlier Operatic Elements,” 221 (re Il Trovatore).

[100] Adelia Alice Humphrey, “Composers of Music,” Kansas City Journal, November 27, 1898, 13.

[101] “Music and the Drama,” Kansas City Journal, November 1, 1896, 9.

[102] “Music and the Drama,” Kansas City Journal, January 3, 1897, 11.

[103] “Music and the Drama,” Kansas City Journal, March 1, 1897, 5.

[104] “Sousa’s Latest March,” Kansas City Journal, July 2, 1897, 3.

[105] “Music and the Drama,” Kansas City Journal, October 17, 1897, 8.

[106] “Music and the Drama,” Kansas City Journal, October 24, 1897, 8.

[107] “The Kansas City Journal March,” Kansas City Journal, July 24, 1898, 11.

[108] “Marriage Licenses,” St. Louis Republic, January 23, 1901, 10.

[109] D. Keedy Campbell, “Kansas City,” New York Dramatic Mirror, August 9, 1902, 5.

[110] St. Louis Republic, February 8, 1903, part II, 2.

[111] St. Louis Republic, March 29, 1903, part II, 8.

[112] “Park Concert This Evening,” St. Louis Republic, August 9, 1904, 12.

[113] “Criticisms Were Not Responsible,” St. Louis Republic, December 17, 1901, 7.

[114] “Opening Festival of Song Heard by Twenty Thousand,” St. Louis Republic, June 18, 1903, 1.

[115] “First Festival Concert Pleases Large Audience,” St. Louis Republic, June 4, 1904, part I, 3.

[116] “Violinist Olk Charms Audience at Festival Hall,” St. Louis Republic, June 11, 1904, part II, 1.

[117] “What the Interior Papers Say,” Galveston Daily News, February 14, 1883.

[118] “Dates Ahead: Dramatic Companies,” New York Dramatic Mirror, September 25, 1886, 9.

[119] Today, Ouija tables are sold by Parker Brothers; “Zozo the Magic Queen” is a registered trademark, used to sell cute Victorian-style calendars to teenage girls. It has a page on Facebook.

[120] Albrecht, “African, Autobiographical, and Earlier Operatic Elements,” 227, suggests a link between Simon and Samiel, the devil in Der Freischütz. I do not think so, not only because the similarity is phonetically stretched but, more substantially, because Simon is not the devil in Treemonisha. He is surprised and scared by the devil’s appearance.

[121] Swami Vivekananda, “Address at the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago.” (accessed January 23, 2012).

[122] “Worse than Indians,” Pittsburg Dispatch, March 13, 1892, 2.

[123] “Getting Ready to Migrate to Africa,” New York World, April 8, 1892, 9.

[124] “Indignation Meeting of Negroes,” Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, April 19, 1892, 2.

[125] “Amusements,” Wichita Daily Eagle, May 17, 1892, 8.

[126] “State News,” Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1877, 2.

[127] “Buttons of ‘Undesirables’ Will Be in Evidence in New York Moyer–Haywood Parade,” Washington Post, April 30, 1907, 4.

[128] A chronology of the trial is at Douglas O. Linder, “Famous Trials,” University of Missouri–Kansas City,

[129] For a biographical sketch of Haywood, see Mildretta Hamilton Adams, Sagebrush Post Offices: A History of the Owyhee Country (Pocatello, ID: Idaho State University Press, 1986).

[130] “20,000 Parade for Accused Miners,” New York Times, May 5, 1907, 1.

[131] It resurfaced only in 2007, when the Idaho Songs Project released a book-cum-CD: Gary Eller, Early Songs of Southern Idaho and the Emigrant Trails (Nampa, ID: Pickles’ Butte Music, 2008).

[132] Edwardsville Intelligencer, June 11, 1909.

[133] Frederick F. Berry, The Torch of Reason, or Humanity’s God (Cincinnati: The Torch of Reason, 1912), x.

[134] Eugene V. Debs to Frederick F. Berry, March 21, 1912, in Letters of Eugene V. Debs, vol. 1 (1874–1912), ed. James Robert Constantine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 469.

[135] Berry was probably born in the early or mid–1880s and died by the late 1960s. In the period examined here, he wrote for The National Rip-Saw, a St. Louis radical periodical. He then wrote for The Commonwealth (1913). His opus includes Two Little Shoes and Two Little Feet (1931), Road Runner (1939), Black Sand (1952), Sparks from the Forge of Life (1962), His Polar Banshee Dream (n.d.), The Strike of the Mothers of Men (n.d.).

[136] Scott Joplin, Treemonisha, 2 compact discs, New World Records 80720, 2011.

[137] Personal communication, 1998.

[138] Adolf Douai, “Labor and Work,” Workmen’s Advocate 3, no. 17 (April 23, 1887): 1.

[139] Paul Lafargue, The right to be lazy, being a refutation of the “Right to work” of 1848 (Chicago: Charles Kerr and Co., 1898).

Author Information: 
Musicologist Marcello Piras teaches music history at L’Aquila Conservatory, Italy. He is a member of the editorial board of Jazz Perspectives and has published a book on John Coltrane (John Coltrane: Un sax sulle vette e negli abissi dell’io), a CD-ROM on jazz discography (Il jazz. I dischi, i musicisti, gli stili), and numerous essays published in encyclopedias, books, and periodicals. He has worked at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago and at the University of Michigan, where he was executive editor of the MUSA scholarly series in 2001–02. At present, he lives in Puebla, Mexico, studying the black influence on colonial Baroque music. He is currently working on an Afrocentric history of music from Stone Age to present, integrating contributions from palaeontology, evolutionism, human brain phylogenesis, comparative linguistics, and archaeology.

Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha is in many ways an unusual opera, for its composer came from a small town, far removed from the opera world. Yet it is full of quotations and references to other operas. This article, almost entirely based on original research, sheds light on several chapters in Joplin’s life and influences, unearthing many new data on his milieu, teachers, contacts, and cultural influences. Its conclusions are that Joplin conceived Treemonisha as a crossword puzzle of symbols, adopting Carl Maria von Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz, as an empty mold and systematically reversing its meanings.

Treemonisha, Scott Joplin, Der Freischütz, opera, theater, jazz, ragtime, Julius Weiss, Alfred Ernst, Rocco Venuto

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Piras, Marcello. “Treemonisha, or Der Freischütz Upside Down.” Current Research in Jazz 4, (2012).
  • MLA 7th ed.: Piras, Marcello. “Treemonisha, or Der Freischütz Upside Down.” Current Research in Jazz 4 (2012). Web. [date of access]
  • APA 6th ed.: Piras, M. (2012). Treemonisha, or Der Freischütz Upside Down. Current Research in Jazz, 4 Retrieved from

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