At what tempo should I play the Maple Leaf Rag?
October 30, 2009 12:43 PM   Subscribe

Suggested tempos for Joplin's piano rags?

When I was about 16, I learned to play the Maple Leaf Rag, at a fairly fast tempo, about eighth note = 190 on the metronome. I played it in front of an expert organist and pianist, and he said I was playing it "much too fast". Being a teenager, I ignored the advice of my elders.

Fast-forward 12 years, during which I played little piano. Eventually, seeking to recover my piano skills, I check out a book of Joplin's rags from the local music library. The preface (written by Joplin himself, if memory serves) admonishes the student never to play fast. No tempos are given in any of my scores. Three different recordings of the Maple Leaf I've listened to have the tempo somewhat above 180. However, I play the Gladiolus rag at 116, or even a little slower, and it sounds great. This matches at least one recording I have. Another recording I've heard, of the Magnetic Rag (which I'm currently learning), is perhaps even slower than that.

So, what is the "correct" tempo for the Maple Leaf? Do pianists play this and other rags at different tempos for different effects? What did Joplin mean by "ragtime is never to be played fast"? I'm currently retraining my fingers to play the Maple Leaf at 144, but is this too slow?

As a bonus question, my score for Joseph Lamb's "Ragtime Nightingale" indicates "Slow March", but I have no idea what that translates to on the metronome. What tempo should this be?
posted by Maximian to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Joplin himself was recorded on piano roll, playing his own music. These recordings still exist (#5 here) but I don't see right away how you would get them. I think this would be the most foolproof way of finding the tempo he liked best. At the bottom of this page is an "Ask a librarian" link and the "Services [we] provide" look really useful and relevant to your questions.
posted by fritley at 1:05 PM on October 30, 2009

Your question has me poking around YouTube listening to Joplin. One of the performers has the following interesting text in his video notes:
There has been much attention given recently to Joplin's "slow" and "not fast" indications, which are often misleading if taken literally. Never has there been a composer in the history of music who wrote only slow music, but rather all the great composers included a wide gamut of speeds and emotions from slow to moderate to fast. Joplin certainly was no exception, meaning that it would be too one-sided and simplistic to take his "slow" and "not fast" indications literally and never play any of his rags in a lively fashion. Joplin probably became obsessed with "slow" and "not fast" indications to guard against outrageously fast tempos exceeding 120 bpm that saloon virtuosos often took, such as Alan Thompson's version of Maple Leaf Rag (here on YouTube).

Most of Joplin's rags are marches or in a march-like style. Considering that a normal march (like by Sousa) has a tempo of about 120 bpm, when Joplin says "slow" or "slow march tempo", he didn't necessarily mean a truly slow tempo, but rather a tempo slower than 120 bpm. In other words, "slow" was a relative term to Joplin rather than a purely specific or quantitative term most people associate with the word "slow". For example, Joplin gave "Sugar Cane" a metronome mark of 100 bpm accompanied with the indication "slow march tempo". To our ears Sugar Cane at 100 bpm is actually "fast", although compared to a normal march tempo of about 120 bpm it is indeed "slow".

Our duty as performers is to decide through analysis and logic which rags should be slower and more introverted, which should be faster and more extroverted, and which should be something in between. Often times one needs to look no further than the title and title page! For example, the title page of "The Easy Winners" shows football, baseball, and horse racing, in which "winners" and "athletes" clearly suggest an energetic and exuberant kind of performance rather than a calm and stately one. On the other hand, a title like "Weeping Willow" suggests the complete opposite--a calm, melancholy, and reflective mood that is best captured with a truly slow tempo.

One of the most misunderstood of Joplin's rags is "Gladiolus Rag", whose title indicates an energetic and masculine performance rather than a calm and serious one, as is often done. Of course, titles do not tell us everything; however, recognizing the implications of the titles along with study of the musical character and important musical motives at least bring us closer to capturing the true essence of the music as Joplin intended.

This strikes me as more or less right. I've always liked Joplin better at a peppy tempo, myself. There's also a Piano Roll version of Maple Leaf rag recorded by Joplin himself which might provide some guidance.
posted by shadow vector at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2009

How is playback speed controlled on a player piano? I would think that it could be more or less freely varied, so that a player piano roll wouldn't give much information about how fast the original performer played it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:19 PM on October 30, 2009

Regarding the piano roll recordings, I've listened to one (the one on the Wikipedia article). It is extremely fast. I'm concerned about how "accurate" a player piano's speed is, since, like Johnny Assay noted, it can probably be controlled by the operator.
posted by Maximian at 1:27 PM on October 30, 2009

Tempo is a great factor of insecurity with piano rolls, in classical recordings this has long been a recognized problem. There is simply no guarantee that the playback mechanism is calibrated the same way as the recording machine, or that the tempo even is entirely stable.
posted by Namlit at 2:26 PM on October 30, 2009

I think the key point is that the rags were written not so much to show off the virtuosity of the performer as to be danced to. There were several different dances that went with ragtime music. Some such as the Cakewalk - seen here at about 110bpm were originally done by professional dancers on stage in minstrel shows - and fast would probably have been OK. At the stage where more ordinary dancers were being played for in a club I am guessing that slower would have been better.
posted by rongorongo at 4:37 PM on October 30, 2009

Some more ragtime era dances on youtube with an explanation and modern demonstrations. Have a look at the Castle Walk at about 2mins 40. One way to answer your question would be to try to see how fast you would be comfortable dancing to them. Not at 190 bpm I suspect.
posted by rongorongo at 4:45 PM on October 30, 2009

Joshua Rifkin played (plays? I speak of the recordings) at a fairly dignified stately pace which to my ear was effective and pleasantly melancholic - though I knew serious musicologists who hate it, thought it way too slow. Then again this guy says he's playing even slower (86 v 96 bpm) than Rifkin, and it sounds pretty peppy, so go figure

Suit yourself, I says. But check out Rifkin, who may have taken the admonishment a little too much to heart.

Or not.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:53 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

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