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Spaghetti Rag
Rag Music for Mandolins


As African-American music developed, in all its myriad incarnations, many of the stories surrounding its growth led to the creation of lasting stereotypical ideas about the musicians and their lives, ideas which have in no way increased our understanding and appreciation of the music itself. Ragtime emerged in the late-1800s, a turbulent time in American social history, and soon became popular far and wide thanks to a host of musicians who successfully promoted it by all means at their disposal—by the end of the century, with record sales of sheet music, ragmania was spreading around the world.

"I've got a ragtime dog and a ragtime cat, a ragtime piano in my ragtime flat…I'm certainly leading a ragtime life." So went one of the songs of the day, showing how the genre had taken its place in contemporary popular culture. Funnily enough, in the 1970s, after six decades of commercial oblivion, enthusiasm for ragtime music spread like wildfire again when, after overcoming various obstacles, music historian Vera Brodsky Lawrence eventually succeeded in getting the two volumes of Scott Joplin's collected works published, and then, two years later, in 1973, director George Roy Hill used his music for the soundtrack of The Sting.

Ragtime came from the background of slavery. Black musicians were expected to learn the basics of European instrumental technique so that they could perform when called on by their white masters, something that normally resulted in better living conditions. Even if they were not required to change their own musicality or the way they perceived music, as soon as their talents were recognised, the new musical idioms and instrumental techniques they learned led to a fusion between the way they played and the repertoire they performed. Parties, key events in the lives of both the black and white communities, provided most of these musicians' performance opportunities, and usually included dancing, to the accompaniment of strings, wind and percussion. Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha illustrates the key social role these dances played in plantation life.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, another means of musical participation emerged in the shape of the newly independent black churches. Their services featured the use of keyboard instruments, with which musicians had already come into contact in their masters' houses and at home. A new generation therefore learned something of European music through a varied repertoire of marches, polkas, opera arias and dance tunes. Itinerant black entertainers, both soloists and groups, began to perform in a variety of places to a variety of audiences, and ragtime may well have grown out of their encounters in barrel-houses with local, often self-taught musicians trying to sing and play blues on the piano.

"It's not music made explicitly to dance to, or a music you have to dance to, it's just music you could dance to." Ragtime was always an ambiguous form of music both in terms of composition and instrumentation. From its beginnings it was presented as music by and for the composer, written and published for the piano, but it was the "rag bands" of string and wind instruments that popularised ragtime works, adding their own touches to them. Those composers who also wrote and performed music of other genres (even if their fame rests on their rags), tended therefore to formalise their compositions through the filter of "learned" European music. Other musicians would then blend in more traditional themes, often inserting them polyphonically into the trio sections, or even adding their own embellishments to the melodic line. Early recordings and sheet music bear witness to the wide range of possibilities offered by these works. Any attempt to define the characteristics of ragtime, however, must take the piano into account and, in particular, the piano music that came out of Sedalia (Missouri) and Saint Louis, which gave us Scott Joplin, ragtime's leading exponent, and John Stark, the dedicated publisher who so successfully marketed his music.

It was Joplin who created the formal models that became fundamental in defining the genre with his pieces Maple Leaf Rag, a wonderful mix of tunes with popular references that follows the pattern A/A-B/B-A-C/C-D/D, and The Entertainer, where the use of counterpoint makes it "classical" in pace and schematic construction:

Introduction I A/A-B/B-A-C/C

Introduction II D/D

The journalist Monroe Rosenfeld, writing for a St Louis daily paper in 1903, described it as probably the best and most melodious work of recent times, and called it an unforgettable work of highly original character.

Thereafter, other talented and successful composers, such as Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), James Scott (1886- 1938) and Tom Turpin (1837-1922), followed the same models. While we can see in Joplin and his followers, therefore, an attempt to create a kind of art music that referenced learned European forms, the huge success of ragtime enabled many musicians and entertainers to use it as a virtuosic battleground, winning over audiences with their high-speed performances. Once again, Joplin took centre-stage as in response he tried to lay down the rules about ragtime in his publication A School of Ragtime (1908): "We wish to say here, that the "Joplin ragtime" is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. [The rags] are harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended."

Any talk of the American ragtime phenomenon should make mention of the rôle of European musicians who, as teachers, composers and promoters, enabled the crossover between the music of the old world and the new syncopated idioms, rhythms born and developed in the melting-pot of American society, where music put the less well-off classes of white immigrants and the newly freed blacks on an equal footing, even if this was on the lower rungs of society as a whole.

The most significant aspect, and perhaps the least explored even today, is that of the spread of ragtime into Europe in the early twentieth century. Like all novelties from the States, ragtime and other kinds of syncopated dance music very soon became part of the repertoire of European musicians and, as a consequence, part of the customs of European society. Hence we find numerous cake-walks, fox-trots, shimmies, turkey-trots, donkey-trots, grizzly-bears, javas, peacock-glides, black bottoms and ragtimes (as well as markings such as "one-step", "two-step" and "quick-step") in the catalogues of the most divergent European composers at the turn of the century, from Debussy, Auric and Satie to Burian, Hindemith, Schulhoff, Weill and Martinů.

Why, then, did the mandolin become a ragtime instrument? The simplest answer is that the large numbers of Italian immigrants in American society resulted in the widespread adoption of typical Italian instruments, above all the mandolin. (The number of immigrants rose from 3000 in 1870 to 43,542 in 1885, and 221,479 in 1905: in New York alone there were a good 175,000 in 1900.) The American mandolin craze began in 1880 when the Figaro Spanish Students, a group of around twenty performers from Madrid, who actually played bandurrias and chitarras, toured the United States, appearing in all the major centres from North to South, to great acclaim. (It is worth noting, however, that more than a century earlier a certain Giovanni Gualdo da Vandero had settled in Philadelphia and, in 1769, published an advertisement offering mandolin sales and lessons). Carlo Curti, an impresario, violinist/mandolinist and conductor of the ensemble at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel heard about the interest in the Spanish Students and immediately got together a group of Italians to form a second "Spanish Student" group (changing his own name to Carlos and dressing all of them in Spanish costume), and "extended" the tour of the original Figaro group, counting on the fact that, in the States, no one would recognise the difference between the bandurria and the mandolin.

The instrument was an instant hit and the early American pioneers were Charles J. Levin of Baltimore, Samuel Adelstein of San Francisco, C.H. Pomeroy of Salt Lake City, Valentin Abt of Pittsburgh and Samuel Siegel of Des Moines, all of them of Jewish origin. In 1885 the mail order company Montgomery Ward did not sell mandolins but by 1890 it was reporting that sales of mandolins had more than doubled in comparison to previous years. From that year onwards several American instrument firms began producing mandolins, the largest of these companies, Lyon & Healy of Chicago, created the popular "Washburn" line and by 1894 was producing more than 7000 a year. In 1897 Montgomery Ward was speaking in terms of a "phenomenal growth" in mandolin sales, while Sears dedicated two pages of its catalogue to the instrument (by 1905 this had increased to six). During the same period, Orville Gibson, an instrument-maker working in Kalamazoo, Michigan, redesigned the instrument by applying violin-making techniques: his new mandolins had a fuller, deeper sound and many were asymmetrical, their designs inspired by the new Liberty style. Around 1910 the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company began an aggressive marketing campaign, launching its own line covering the entire family of plectrum instruments, from the mandolin to the mandobass. The names Larson, Maurer, Gibson, Martin and W.C. Stahl (a Milwaukee publisher who backed a competition to build a new kind of mandolin and also wrote two ragtime-marches for mandolin orchestra) also reflect the European influence on the spread of the mandolin.

The United States occupies a special place in the history of the mandolin, though the fact that it was forbidden to write about or document anything to do with the black population has deprived us of much of the evidence to do with the instrument's use within the African-American community. Yet long years of multiethnic "cohabitation" led not only to new and original kinds of music but also to unique cultural phenomena. From recent studies (G. Stella, L'Orda, Rizzoli 2002; N. Gladd Black Musicians in American Mandolin History, Mandolin Quarterly, Vol.1, No.1) which bear witness to the day-to-day exchanges between the Italian, Jewish and African-American communities in many parts of the United States, we can confirm that black composers and performers, largely unknown today, were the stars of the mandolin's golden age, followed by Italians and Jews. Within the African-American communities there grew up a number of large-scale instrumental ensembles, all featuring several mandolinists. Notable soloists included Seth S. Weeks (c.1865-after 1924), who published America's first mandolin concerto, and James Reese Europe (1881-1919) who with his orchestra became a key figure in the transition from ragtime to early jazz. (From 1912 to 1915 Europe's all-black Clef Club Orchestra gave an annual performance at Carnegie Hall with a programme entirely made up of pieces written by black composers. The ensemble's make-up was exceptional: ten mandolins, ten guitars, ten banjos, strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and ten pianos). Two other pieces of evidence add to the picture of the central rôle played by the mandolin in the dissemination and performance of popular American music, including ragtime: a surviving photograph of the Minneapolis Rosebud Mandolin Club, a group of 21 young white players led by William Howard, an African-American guitar and mandolin teacher, and, serving as an appropriate conclusion, Scott Joplin's dedication of The Entertainer to "James Brown and his Mandolin Club".

Spaghetti Rag was composed in 1910 by the Italianborn mandolinist Rocco Giuseppe Iosco (Castelmezzano, Potenza, 1874–New York, 1942) (Bob Yosco - Robert Joseph Yosco) and harpist George Lyons. It was one of the biggest hits of their vaudeville shows. The most famous recording is that of an arrangement for harp, tenor banjo and tuba from the 1950s, but it was recorded several other times, by artists such as Beatrice Kay, Jack Fina and Frankie Carle. On this CD we hear the "classic", Joplinesque version, whereas a contemporary recording from the day (harp-banjo duo and tuba) shows how ragtime had been "contaminated" by swing; on the other hand, as a vaudeville act, Lyons and Yosco may have felt they had to modernise the form. George Lyons (Giorgio Leoni?) may well have come, like Yosco, from the Italian region of Basilicata: his skill as a harpist suggests a link with the town of Viggiano, still known today for its century-old tradition of producing talented harpists. Emigration from the area to the United States in the late nineteenth century is well documented (indeed, so many people left as to endanger that tradition), and as the new century began nearly all the harpists playing in American symphony orchestras had originally come from Viggiano.

After the huge success of his Hungarian Rag (1913), a miniature retelling of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody made famous by Pietro Deiro's recording (for accordion), Julius Lenzberg (1878-1956) devoted much of his time to other such ragtime versions of classical works, thereby creating his own niche repertoire. Operatic Rag (1914) opens with a tribute to "Ridi Pagliaccio" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This is followed by Lenzberg's syncopated takes on works by composers such as Mendelssohn (Spring Song), Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana: Intermezzo), Wagner (Lohengrin: Prelude), Verdi ("Caro nome" from Rigoletto) and Bizet (Carmen), separated by typically ragtime rhythmic and melodic modules, also to be heard in Spaghetti Rag and Hungarian Rag, and used for the first time by Charles Leslie Johnson in his Dill Pickles Rag (1906).

Neil Gladd (b.1955) is an American mandolinist and composer. His Red Bach Book: Three Rags after Bach forms part of the same tradition of rags inspired by the works of classical composers. In this case, we have an overt homage to the composer (J. S. Bach), some of whose most famous works (The Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue) are quoted in both the titles and the musical themes. Gladd's knowing use of titles goes further: The Red Bach Book was an anthology of orchestrated ragtime pieces, including some by Joplin, published by John Stark.

Lady of My Hearts Rag is by Nicola Moleti, a Sicilian composer who was born in Messina in 1890 and moved to Milan in 1914 to conduct the Trianon Orchestra.

No fewer than three men bore the name of E. Oisorak (Carosio): brothers Ermenegildo and Ettore, and Ermenegildo junior. In all likelihood, the composer in question was Ermenegildo Carosio, one of the great figures in Italian mandolin history. Born in Alessandria in 1886, he completed his musical studies in Turin. Most of his output consisted of songs and dance music for piano and small ensembles, but he also wrote an operetta and pieces for mandolin and for guitar, achieving great fame before his death in 1928. Through his Ragtime, Flirtation Rag and Detective Rag we can trace the history and attractions of the ragtime phenomenon in Italy. Particularly noteworthy are the subtitle of Ragtime, "nouvelle danse américaine" (the score also features instructions on how to dance it), the English titles and, most important, the metronome markings (in Flirtation Rag) which are very helpful in clarifying the thorny issue of performance speed for ragtime.

Calace Rag (2001) by Claudio Mandonico (b. 1957) is a tribute to Italy's pre-eminent composer-mandolinist, Raffaele Calace. The result of a recent commission, it was written for the City of Brescia mandolin and guitar orchestra to be performed at the Providence, Rhode Island Mandolin Festival. It is constructed around some of Calace's own melodies, principally his Second Prelude for mandolin and his Momento lirico for "plectrum orchestra".

Rubber Plant Rag (1909) by George Linus Cobb is given here in the arrangement by Walter Jacobs, musician and promoter of mandolin-playing in New England. He worked as a publisher in Boston, producing numerous ragtimes and collections for mandolin, guitar and plectrum orchestra. Cobb studied music at New York's Syracuse University and entered the 1909 Buffalo music contest with the ragtime Buffalo Means Business, for which he won first prize. He then sent his second rag, Rubber Plant, to Jacobs and this proved to be the start of a close working relationship. Russian Rag (1918) owes its name to Rachmaninov's Op. 3 Prelude in C sharp minor (transposed into D minor), and was so successful that Cobb went on to compose a New Russian Rag (1923), based on the same piece. The most successful recorded version of Cobb's work is that of the Russian mandolinist Dave Apollon and his Philippine Boys. Apollon's version includes a quotation in the trio section of the main theme from a hit musical of the day, The Yankee Doodle Boy.

That Italian Rag (1910) is by Alfredo "Al" Piantadosi, one of the Tin Pan Alley composers (his "colleagues" included Nicola "Nick" La Rocca (Tiger Rag), Irving Berlin (Alexander's Ragtime Band, Cheek to cheek, etc.) and George Gershwin). He was famous for both songs and instrumental pieces, and That Italian Rag was also published in song-form, with comic lyrics about Italian immigrants. A number of traditional Italian tunes are woven into its melody.

A' Frangesa by Edward George, with its subtitle of "Neapolitan two-step" and its sheet-music cover image of a Venetian canal complete with gondola shows how most pieces with an Italian connection were playing on the stereotype.

Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag (1899), The Entertainer (1902), Solace "A Mexican Serenade" (1909) were all three included in the soundtrack of The Sting, in their piano versions. The first two can be heard in full, while Solace is harder to pick out because only the C and D strains are used (though the film is still the main reason for the little fame it has, despite being one of Joplin's most "playable" pieces). Maple Leaf was the first rag to sell more than a million copies (in ten years), and won its creator the title of "King of Ragtime". The title comes from the name of the social club where Joplin worked as a pianist. The equally famous Entertainer is really dedicated to Joplin himself since this was his nickname at the Maple Leaf Club (all its members had one). As mentioned above, the dedication to "James Brown and his Mandolin Club" is one of the most important pieces of evidence not only of mandolin-playing among coloured musicians in the United States, but also, and most important, of the instrument's rôle in ragtime performance. Solace, subtitled "A Mexican Serenade", is a perfect example of yearning melancholy (homesickness…spleen…saudade…) and cannot fail to strike a chord with anyone with southern roots.

Ugo Orlandi & Fiorenzo Gitti
Translated by Susannah Howe

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