An American musical genre was created in part by the unlikely pairing of two people in the South during the late nineteenth-century. One of the individuals was a middle-aged Jewish music teacher from Germany, and the other was the eleven-year-old son of former slaves.
The musical world is familiar with the name of the younger of the two, Scott Joplin, who would go on to become “the King of Ragtime.” But only the most ardent Joplin fan is likely to know of the influence Prof. Julius Weiss had on Joplin’s development into a world famous musician and composer.
Scott Joplin was born into a large family in Eastern Texas less than three years after the curtain fell on slavery in America. His talented parents taught their children the rudiments of a variety of instruments, including the piano, violin, and cornet.
Sometime during the 1880s, Joplin’s father abandoned his family, forcing them to resettle in Texarkana. It was here that Joplin’s mother became a domestic servant in the home of a lumber baron. Professor Weiss was also employed by the same family in the role of tutor to the baron’s children.
Weiss had left his native Germany in the 1860s after completing his education at the University of Saxony. He first settled in the New World in St. Louis, before moving on to Texarkana.
It was here, between tutoring sessions for the baron’s children in German, astronomy, mathematics, and music, that Weiss first heard the 11-year-old Joplin play the piano. Recognizing a prodigy and being fully aware of the family’s meager fortunes, Weiss began tutoring Joplin as well, free of charge. He was even able to obtain a used piano for the boy to practice on.
Weiss tutored Joplin for the next several years, never charging a fee, and helped his young student master sight reading and musical theory, and to develop an appreciation for opera and the masters of European music.
In Weiss, Joplin found a substitute for the father who had abandoned him. Joplin remained his student for several years until the professor lost his employment in the lumber baron’s house and moved away.
Joplin eventually set out on his own, developing a new playing style that was based on syncopated, or “ragged,” rhythms. In 1899, he composed one the the first great ragtime classics in Maple Leaf Rag, which was named in honor of the Maple Leaf Club, an African-American gathering place in Sedalia, Missouri. The sheet music for the song became the first million-seller in history and Joplin earned his spot in American history as our first great African-American composer.
Joplin never forgot his old piano teacher after he became famous, regularly sending him gifts of money. He later used Weiss as the basis for a character in his autobiographical ragtime-influenced opera Treemonisha.
Sometime in the early years of the twentieth-century Prof. Weiss passed away. Joplin died from syphilis on this date in 1917 at the age of 49. Fifty-six years and one day later, The Sting, which helped bring Joplin’s music back to our cultural consciousness, cleaned up at the Academy Awards.
Due to prejudice, Julius Weiss was kicked to the curb of waspish, nineteenth-century American society because of his religion and foreign birth. Scott Joplin, because of his skin color, was kept completely outside of it.
Each on his own would have most likely been forgotten by history. But together, they helped create the soundtrack for an entire era.