The Syncopated Times: "Treemonisha’s Premiere, 50 Years On"

 Photo from the 1972 Atlanta Treemonisha pre-performance. (Sedalia Ragtime Archive)

Larry Melton

December 30, 2021

I surprised myself when I placed the phone back on its port and just sat to let the inspiring emotion of the previous conversation mellow. I had just been visiting with T.J. Anderson, about the first concert performance of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha in Atlanta, in 1972. The venue was Symphony Hall, with the Atlanta Symphony directed by Robert Shaw. Morehouse University had produced the modern premiere under the leadership of Dr. Wendell Whalen. The call brought back a flood of memories and a great deal for me to ponder. Dr. Anderson had orchestrated Joplin’s score that William Bolcom edited with “slight assistance,” from Dr. Anderson.

It had not been an easy undertaking for the men due to a disagreement with a belated copyright owner, but Bolcom and Anderson accomplished their roles with great professional dignity, awesome talent, and friendship. Both composers have produced a prodigiously important body of work in their long careers.

Now fifty years later I am astonished that these two eminent American composers had been involved in staging Joplin’s then 60-year-old opera and that I have had recent communication with these two legends. In this era of divisiveness and racial conflict, these men had been part of bringing the work of the son of a slave to public attention. It had been my privilege to attend that premiere and meet these great American composers. (see TST April 2019, p. 18 for my account of the early performances.)

I first met Dr. T.J. Anderson, Jr. and William Bolcom on that occasion, January 28, 1972, at 2:45 PM. I can be sure of the date and time because they were on an African American Music Workshop panel the afternoon prior to the premiere. We had driven all night from Sedalia to be there and it was well worth the effort. By 1972, Anderson and Bolcom were well known composers and Dr. Anderson was a recognized authority on African American music. He had been the Composer in Residence for the Atlanta Symphony for the previous three years and had been selected by Dr. Whalen to orchestrate Treemonisha, from Joplin’s printed piano score.

The 50th anniversary of that event comes this month, and once again a spotlight will shine on Scott Joplin and his seminal role in the advent of America’s popular/classical music. He was also one of the first to compose a truly American opera in the classical tradition.

I had inquired how Dr. Anderson had located Joplin’s score and he replied that William Bolcom gave it to him. Bill’s story is now a legendary part of Joplin lore. He and Rudy Blesh were teaching at Queen’s College in New York City. Blesh, along with researcher Harriett Janis had written They All Played Ragtime, published in 1950. When he inquired if Rudy knew of a copy of the Treemonisha piano score, Rudy responded by showing him a copy of Joplin’s own score Blesh had acquired from Lottie Joplin while he and Harriett Janis were working on their book.

The tragic story of Joplin trying to get Treemonisha published and produced after its composition in 1911 is well documented. It became the composer’s obsession but only a single read-through stage performance took place in Harlem in 1915 and it was produced at Joplin’s own expense. The original orchestrations Joplin had created with his friend Sam Patterson have been lost, along with his entire first opera A Guest of Honor.

Joplin spent the last years of his life trying to get Treemonisha properly staged but he was unsuccessful. Scott Joplin died a long-suffering death in the Manhattan State Hospital on April 1, 1917, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery on Long Island.