Blackness in Opera: Treemonisha

Scott Joplin

Although he concentrated on smaller pieces for piano, Scott Joplin wrote an opera. Joplin wrote Treemonisha in 1910 and had a vocal/piano score published the following year at his own expense. Joplin presented parts of the work to a Harlem audience, but it was met with little enthusiasm. Treemonisha wasn’t fully performed until 1975 by Houston Grand Opera with orchestration by Gunther Schuller. It received a “historically informed” arrangement in 2003 by Rick Benjamin to better reflect the instrumental forces at Joplin’s disposal.

It’s difficult to describe Treemonisha in a few words. It’s not grand opera. But it’s not completely a Ragtime opera either. There are stand-out songs in the work, including Aunt Dinah has blowed the horn and A real slow drag. The opera takes place on a former slave plantation near Texarkana in 1884. Treemonisha is a young educated former slave who rallies her community to throw away the shackles of ignorance and superstition. She is kidnapped and almost murdered, but is saved. The people choose her as their leader as they reject mysticism and realise the value of education.
Treemonisha has received recent performances in the Schuller arrangement. Rick Benjamin presents selections of his arrangement occasionally and released a recording of the full score in 2011.

Let Freedom Sing: Music of the Abolitionists

Let Freedom Sing, hosted by NPR’s Noah Adams, chronicles of the idealistic artists, uncompromising personalities, and powerful music of the era, and looks at how these forces combined to turn abolitionism from a scorned fringe movement into a nation-changing force.

Music included in Let Freedom Sing:

Traditional – Steal Away
Fisk Jubilee Singers

Anon. – Come Join the Abolitionists
Deborah Anne Goss

Henry Russell – The Maniac
George Shirley, baritone; William Bolcom, piano

Jesse Hutchinson, Jr. – The Old Granite State
New Hutchinson Family Singers

Jesse Hutchinson, Jr. – Get off the Track
New Hutchinson Family Singers

Stephen Foster – Variations on Old Folks At Home
Noel Lester, piano

Stephen Foster – My Old Kentucky Home
George Shirley, baritone; William Bolcom, piano

Stephen Foster – My Old Kentucky Home arr. for Solo Flute
Paula Robison, Flute

Stephen Foster – Hard Times Come Again No More
Thomas Hampson, baritone; Jay Ungar violin; Molly Mason, bass; Tony Trishka, banjo; David Alpher, piano; Mark Rust & Garrison Keillor, background vocals

George F. Root – Where Home Is
The Harmoneion Singers: Peter Basquin, harmonium

George F. Root – Battle Cry of Freedom
John Cowan, vocals; Butch Baldassari, mandolin; Mark Combs, fiddle; Bryon House, bass; Jeffrey Taylor; accordion

George F. Root – Battle Cry of Freedom (reprise)
Mar Gardner, banjo; Rex Rideout, fiddle

Henry Clay Work – Kingdom Coming
Clifford Jackson, baritone; Joan Morris, mezzo-soprano; William Bolcom, piano; The Camerata Chorus Of Washington

Henry Clay Work – Who Shall Rule This American Nation?
Clifford Jackson, baritone; William Bolcom, piano; The Camerata Chorus Of Washington

Traditional – De Gospel Train (Get On Board)
Fisk Jubilee Singers

Jesse Hutchinson, Jr: – Get Off The Track
‘The Proper Ladies -Deborah Goss and Anabel Graetz