Black US ragtime pianist and composer, the first to write down his compositions.
Born in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin won several local piano contests before turning his attention exclusively to the syncopated piano style known as ragtime. A strong influence on the stride piano style of Fats Waller, ragtime became a precursor of jazz. The first pieces called rags were written in 1897–98; two of Joplin's best known, ‘Original Rags’ and ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, were written in 1899. The latter was so successful that a publishing company was formed on the strength of it, and a million copies of the sheet music were soon sold. Ragtime became nationally popular and for a time Joplin achieved his ambition of wealth and fame for a black musician. However, he aspired to create a more serious school of ragtime composition although the style does not sustain extended forms. He also wrote two operas, A Guest of Honor (c.1903; now lost) and Treemonisha (1911), and started an opera company and a symphony based on ragtime. None of these ventures succeeded; he was particularly distressed by the failure of Treemonisha. These failures, the ravages of syphilis, and declining interest in ragtime, combined to lead to his early death in a mental home.
He wrote about fifty piano rags, of which many are subtle and stylish compositions as well as delightful period pieces. The tendency to play them at breakneck speed, in spite of the instruction ‘Do not play fast’, was reversed when they were revived in the late 1960s; Joplin's music was featured in a popular film, The Sting, in 1973.