I’ve been getting into Joplin lately, playing and listening. He’s know for “The Entertainer,” which my mom always calls “The Sting” after the movie of that name, and “The Maple Leaf Rag.” These are fun pieces, but he wrote a lot more. Many are similar, like “Binks Waltz,” as these were his primary money makers, but then one has “Bethena.”
Joplin published “Bethena” in 1905, shortly after his wife Freddie, of two months, died from pneumonia. Between the death and early 1905, we don’t know much about Joplin’s location and actions, but finances were tight. The piece also fell into obscurity for some time, and we don’t know how successful it was when Joplin was around. We also don’t know who Bethena was. Some speculate it was a nickname for Freddie. And the figure on the cover of the original cover is also a mystery, though she is often considered Freddie as well.
The song showed up again in Benjamin Button, with NPR doing a little write up, and it has garnered critical attention on its own. For one, it’s a beautiful piece. Wistful, simple, and ultimately affirming. Joplin uses that initial coda and shifting key changes to weave a powerful emotional journey. His use of the coda, in particular, reminds me of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement, grounding a roving piece in sad reflection. But it doesn’t have the drama of Beethoven, replacing it with lyricism. “Cantible,” say the directions, “like singing.”
It’s also rhythmically complex, mixing a baseline from classical waltz with the subtle syncopation found in cakewalk and rags, itself slightly altered. But the contrast is elegant, gently carrying the piece along, almost invisible.
I say all this for two reasons. One, I love finding these little gems–moving pieces that are not well known. And in this particular case, I find it sad that one of America’s best composers remains a bit obscure. I can easily YouTube Beethoven and Messiaen, finding loads of videos, but Joplin generally yields player pianos, ragtime enthusiasts with poor microphones, or still images with songs in the background. Not professional performances.
Second, I find the (inter)textuality of this music fascinating. For one, there’s the obscurity of the piece’s origins and its possible connection to Freddie’s death. Then, why did it disappear? How did it get rediscovered? Who is Bethena, if anyone? Why did Joplin write this? Was it to make money like most of his work, or was it like his failed opera, something more serious?
And the layering of classical waltz with cakewalk and rag also has a lot to it. The privileged, ritzy connotations of classical waltz rubbing elbows with the folk rhythms of plantation slaves doing cakewalk and player pianos grinding out rags.
And then the piece’s use in Benjamin Button, interlacing and helping to build a film in a completely different context.
Music is much like poetry, presenting a nut that may be beautiful on the surface but gets more beautiful and complex as one cracks it open. One listens to the melody and rhythms, the weaving tonalities and structures, the counterpoint and traditions, the forms and genres, themselves dancing, interlaced with stories and affect, and the piece transforms.
One of my poetry teachers once wrote that good prose is like good beer and good poetry is like good gin, more distilled and compact. Exceptions exist–Joyce and Wolfe have pretty ginny prose, I think–but the distinction has stuck with me. Only now, I’m not sure where music falls. Maybe wine. Taking the time to let the flavors waft over you, with little recognitions gathered in new ways. Each playing a slightly different experience, a slightly different piece of ephemeral craft.
Whatever the case, I’m glad I found this piece a few years ago and that it comes along still, at least now and then.