The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .

Rag-Time Music.


ragtime-01.jpgRag time music has a respectable genesis; an old, venerable one, indeed. We need not go farther back than to the music of the god-like Beethoven to find examples of rag-time music; though formerly known under a more respectable technical name,—that of syncopation. So rag-time music is, simply, syncopated rhythm maddened into a desperate iterativeness; a rhythm overdone, to please the present public music taste. Because of the present public fondness for it, that philosopher who contends that all music is popular, just so far as its rhythmic movement—not its melodic, or harmonic—is popular, is happy in his putting of a fine point on it. “Ah!” he knowingly exclaims, “music altogether is nothing unless rub-a-dub, rhythmic; ragtime, in a word.”

Here is another notational illustration of the early genesis and perennial usefulness of rag-time music, from the great tone-master, Haydn. It is a section of one of his variations on the Austrian National Hymn, which he composed. It constitutes that step—from a sublime hymn to the ridiculous tonal halt—which the cynic critic loves to roll under his tongue:

ragtime-02.jpgFrom this grand Austrian Hymn, let us turn to one of the sanctified Gregorian tones, which opens with a favorite rag-time phrase, thus:


This Gregorian notational excerpt shows that, even in church music, the people of all countries and times demand that tonal variety of which the great classic authority on the fugue, Anton Reicha, says, “Variety is the very soul of music; and is, with respect to that art, what proportions are to the mathematics.” And this is Gregorian rag-time.

The following selections from the wild music of the wild Fantees show that rag-time is not a creation of musical culture, but an adoption of a very old, very wild, yet very human rhythmic form:

This Fantee dirge-music is especially interesting for its illustration of the funereal use of rag-time by the Fantees, in marked contrast to its modern, mirthful use.

Numberless are the rag-time instances in the fugues and other compositions of Beethoven’s distinguished teacher, Albrechtsberger, who says, practically, in them, “No rag-time, no fugue.” Numberless are they, too, in the fugues and other works of all the composers since the morning stars were created and sang together. They are born of that soul of music, variety; they are an integral part of tonal mathematics, the essence of human song. Call them “coon-time,” “rag-time,” syncopated time, or what-not time; they unquestionably meet the musical exigencies of man’s present mundane environment. If you were to ask me if rag-time will obtain among glorified souls when time is no more, I, naturally, would hesitate as to uttering an opinion, to be taken as an indisputable dictum; though inclined to agree with the philosopher already quoted herein, that, so far as man remains, in the great hereafter, as he now is, so far will he desire and demand rhythmic music—”ragtime,” “coon-music,” syncopated music, rub-a-dub music. In proof of this opinion, I would refer the skeptic reader to the material images in the Revelation of St. John.

The tone-philosopher, of all times, declares that music is only rhythm.

He “knowingly exclaims” thus; yet the profoundest present student of music must feel, as have felt the tone-masters, from Beethoven to Wagner, and would exclaim, as did St. Paul before the noble Felix, “except these (rhythmic) bonds!” The more one studies, and the deeper one delves into the tone-wealth of the masters, the more does he realize their soul-chafings at these bonds.

That rag-time is musically effective, nobody denies. Watch its effect on any audience, if you happen to think differently about it from everybody. Nevertheless is ragtime of the earth, earthy; rub-a-dub, rub-a-dub; of the lower, lowest earth, earthy; though Beethoven employed it; and, with a questionable artistic taste in the foregoing example, be it said, even touching that god-like master. The more one studies, and the higher one gets, with Beethoven, Wagner, and Dante, into the empyrean, the more will he chafe at rhythmic cabining and cribbing. Heaven surely has no baton-wielder, time-counter; for time, of all kinds, is, or will be, no more there!

Present ragtime is a ligno-musical stimulant. The ordinary music-listener wants to hear something musical that sets the head to nodding and the foot to stamping; something which he can grasp and comprehend with his present rhythmic sense, somewhat as he does a cane, because of his Simian descent. The ordinary music-listener is blase, as the French say. Music to be enjoyed by him must be of the most pronounced, accentuated rhythm; tonal caviar. Note the Sousa music, in this regard; each strain of it is of a different, yet public-attractive, rhythm; a rhythm adroitly chosen so as to preserve a certain general, artistic unanimity of movement; one which shall not antagonize, to the extent of an open protest, the highly critical listener. Note, too, the openly confessed, nude rag-time, “coon- time” pieces, without any nonsense of affectation about them. They might offend the high-church sense of open-mouthed, professed respecters of the proprieties of classic music; notwithstanding, when judged by the criterion of pure, general popularity—the popularity which obtains at our summer-gardens—they seem to be at one with the present demand of the present general public. When we have said thus much, let us not forget the quotation from one of the great Beethoven’s most popular overtures which heads this paper.

The present American music-age has in it a noisy element which exalts rhythm, pure and simple, above tone. America, generally, is not yet educated deeply, thoroughly enough in a musical regard, to be able to exercise a well-disciplined, discriminative judgment touching the matter of music. Hence it wants ragtime in its music just now, not as Beethoven, Haydn, and the other old masters sparingly used it, as the gormand does pepper in his food; it wants its music to be all pepper, so to speak. The masters have made rag-time classic, as the music antiquary must admit; and that old master who first used it doubtless did so in order to relieve that early rhythmic current whose accents had uniform intervals. Music students ever find the analysis of music accents a very interesting matter, one to which they may profitably attend. Therefore, the present phase of American musical feeling well may be noted by them; it doubtless will be cited and commented upon by the musical historian of the future, who may find that some class-music collector of to-day has, not unwisely, gathered together, and had bound in volumes, and deposited them in some public library, all the ragtime tunes that now delight the public ear. Judging our musical future by the past of music in the Old World, the belief is fair that rag-time—by some other name, perhaps—will be much in evidence to that historian, in the music of his day.


<< Cecile Chaminade.     Special Notices >>

Monthly Archives

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music