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Julius Weiss (born in 1840 or 1841) was a German-born American Jewish music professor, best known for being Scott Joplin's "first piano teacher." He is credited with inspiring and influencing Joplin, considered "the king of ragtime," during his early years. He taught Joplin music and other subjects for a number of years, beginning when Joplin was eleven years old, and did so free of cost. Joplin's parents, a former slave, and domestic worker, had no way to pay for private lessons. One writer refers to Weiss as "legendary," since little was known about him until 60 years after Joplin's death. Joplin's widow recalls that in her husband's "later years (1907 to 1917), he sent his teacher, by then ill and poor, gifts of money from time to time," until "the older man died.":102
Early life and career
Weiss was born in Saxony, Germany,:98–99 where he received most of his early education. He attended the University of Saxony, from which he graduated, presumably when he was 19. Growing up in Germany, Weiss, as described by San Diego Jewish World writer Eric George Tauber, was "no stranger to [receiving] race hatred... As a German Jew, he was often slapped and called a “Christ-killer." He moved to the United States in the late 1860s and first settled in St. Louis, Missouri, in order to teach music. In the late 1870s he was hired to privately tutor the children of a wealthy landowner in the lumber industry, Robert W. Rodgers, in Texarkana, Texas. After moving to Texarkana he taught the Rodgers children various subjects, including German, astronomy, mathematics, and violin. He also took on other students in town, and listed his profession with the town recorder as "Professor of music.":93 Musicologist Edward Berlin notes that one of Mr. Rodgers' children credited Weiss for having inspired his lifelong appreciation and love of opera.:7
According to Joplin biographer, Rudi Blesh, Weiss, then about age 39, "heard young Joplin play and as a result gave him free lessons in piano, sight reading, and the principles to extend and confirm his natural instinct for harmony.":90 Although young Joplin was said to have received some beginner's guidance from local teachers, it was Weiss who first introduced Joplin "to European art music," and the "European masters." Blesh writes that "the professor is said to have played the classics for him, and to have talked of the great composers, and especially of the famous operas.":90
Berlin points out that Weiss, through his teaching, had "a profound influence on the young Joplin.":7 It is assumed that "the essence of what Weiss accomplished was to impart to Scott an appreciation of music as an art as well as an entertainment. Weiss helped shape Joplin's aspirations and ambitions toward high artistic goals,":7 by introducing him to theories of music composition, European culture, and the benefits of education.
During that time, however, Joplin's father left his wife and six children, forcing her to take menial house-care jobs for income. To make sure young Joplin would continue practicing, Weiss found a used piano from one of his other students and helped Joplin's mother buy it. Weiss continued teaching Joplin for about five years, at no cost, until his employment with the Rodgers family ended and he moved away. Albrecht speculates that without his father present, the young Joplin "may have found a substitute in his teacher - an 'intellectual parent'":104 Joplin's widow notes that in his later years after he became a recognized composer, Joplin kept in touch with Weiss, and upon learning that Weiss was ill and poor, sent him "gifts of money from time to time," until Weiss died.:102
As an adult, Joplin taught music to aspiring pianists, some of whom became notable composers of ragtime. "They looked upon him almost as a hero," adds Berlin.:31 Joplin himself enrolled in a college of music in his late 20s, an indication, writes Berlin, of his "respect for education.":31 Joplin had obviously "had some training in fundamental theory," historian John Hasse points out, in order for him to enroll in advanced harmony and composition courses at the college.:120 Whereas Larry Walz, of The Texas State Historical Association believes that "Weiss was surely the inspiration for Scott Joplin's quest to continue his musical education."
In 1911, Joplin published one of the most important compositions of his life: the opera Treemonisha. Numerous music historians, along with Joplin's widow, have pointed out similarities between the story and theme of Treemonisha with Joplin's own childhood years. Berlin describes the libretto (the written text of the opera,) as something more than "just a fictional vehicle for Joplin's music," as the story is autobiographical in its message. Key aspects of the storyline were so important to understanding the opera, that Joplin wrote portions of the story in the opera's Preface, so that viewers would need to read it first. Joplin's widow, Lottie, likewise drew a connection between Joplin's personal aspirations and the traits he gives to Treemonisha, when she says about her earlier husband:
- "He was a great man, a great man! He wanted to be a real leader. He wanted to free his people from poverty, ignorance, and superstition, just like the heroine of his ragtime opera, Treemonisha.:193
Berlin asks, "Does Treemonisha represent Joplin?":207 In attempting to answer that question, Berlin points out that the opera, in many ways, "is a medium through which he commemorated people in his life and expressed some of his most personal feelings.":203 "Ignorance is criminal," Joplin writes on page 209 of the libretto. And education, which was necessary to earn respect and livelihood, should become a goal of the black community. Joplin writes that the black people in his opera lived "in dense ignorance, with no one to guide them, as the white folks had moved away" (p. 5) Treemonisha, the protagonist of the opera, was a black teenager who was educated by a white woman, "just as Joplin received his education from a white music teacher," notes Berlin.:205 In addition, Treemonisha began her education from the white teacher at age 7, only a few years apart from the age that Joplin began studying with Weiss.
The setting of the story also takes place near Joplin's childhood home. And at the conclusion of the opera's Preface, there are parallels to Joplin's own early life, where he writes, "The opera begins in September 1884. Treemonisha, being eighteen years old, now starts upon her career as a teacher and a leader" (libretto p. 7). Berlin speculates that Joplin was "commemorating something." He notes that "Weiss, Joplin's early music teacher, [also] left Texarkana in . . . 1884.":208 Music historian Theodore Albrecht also believes the date was relevant to young Joplin's life:
- "With his teacher no longer available to him, the 16-year-old Scott saw no reason to remain in town. . . He then set off upon his career as a musician, perhaps with hopes of eventually becoming a teacher and leader of his people, the course he ascribes to his heroine Treemonisha.:104–105
In 1908, Joplin did become a teacher, and during the peak of his career, he self-published a ragtime music manual for aspiring students entitled, School of Ragtime. The manual contained exercises and notes written by Joplin. However, Joplin generally "shied away from public performances later in his career." Ragtime expert Terry Waldo explains that Treemonisha was "Joplin's greatest attempt to synthesize all of his musical and ideological thought." Walz, in addition, notes the "influence of mid-nineteenth-century German operatic style" is quite obvious in Treemonisha.
Waldo explains many of Joplin's themes:
- "Of all the ragtime music, Joplin's is the most purely artistic and autobiographical. It is music written for its own sake and always reflective of Joplin's personal life. . . ":62
Musicologist and ragtime recording artist Joshua Rifkin discusses Joplin's last composition, "Magnetic Rag," before Joplin's early death. The song was subtititled "Syncopations classiques," which Rifkin describes as a "valedictory work." He notes that in its middle sections, Joplin seems to be paying "tribute" to a "transplanted Middle-European dance music" . . . and the European masters whom he tried to emulate. Rifkin speculates that the composition also "seems like a farewell, as if he knew how brief and bleak was the time still alloted him."
- Waldo, Terry. This is Ragtime, Hawthorn Books, Inc. (1976) p. 49
- Albrecht, Theodore "Julius Weiss: Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher." 19. Case Western Univ. College Music Symposium. (1979) pp. 89–105
- "Play about Scott Joplin is electrifying." Tauber, Eric George. San Diego Jewish World. www.sdjewishworld.com. Published September 28, 2014. Accessed November 6, 2017.
- Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, Oxford Univ. Press (1996)
- Hasse, John Edward. Ragtime: its History, Composers, and Music. Schirmer Books (1985) p. 130
- Texas State Historical Association: Julius Weiss
- Morgan, Thomas L., and Barlow, William. From Cakewalks to Concert Halls, Elliott & Clark Publishers (1992) p. 24
- Rifkin, Joshua. "Scott Joplin Piano Rags," Nonesuch Records, (1970) album notes