Scott Joplin: From Superstition to Knowledge – Treemonisha

TreemonishaI stumbled upon this recording of Treemonisha, just by chance, when I was prowling for some music at La Quinta de Mahler, an excellent music shop very near the Teatro Real, in Madrid, Spain. I usually visit this shop in search for music and good conversation. And most of times I get both of them. It was José, one of the shop attendants, who recommended me the Pentatone recording of this opera written in 1910 by Scott Joplin (1868-1917). However, its premiere with orchestra would have to wait until 1972. In fact, neither Scott Joplin was able to premiere the orchestral version in his life time. He could only do a performance of this work in 1915: it was financed by him and performed on the piano by Joplin himself. No orchestra, my friends! And if it were not enough, in 1962, a trustee destroyed Joplin’s manuscript of the orchestration because he considered it had been too damaged by water and it was not worth saving it… So, the version we know today its but an approximation to Joplin’s ideas based on a piano reduction only appeared in 1970, sixty year after its composition. Then, there he was, the composer and jazz musician Gunther Schuller (1925- ), who wrote the orchestration for the Houston Grand Opera in 1975. And this is the orchestration of the above mentioned Pentatone recording.

Both the libreto and music were written by Scott Joplin. Simply and clearly, it tells the

La Quinta de Mahler, Madrid.

La Quinta de Mahler, Madrid.

story of a girl, Treemonisha, who has learnt how to read, write and do arithmetic. This leads her to know new things and become aware of all the superstitions and fear caused by the ignorance of the people in her community. They still cling to superstition and sorcery. People resist change, because superstition is part of their culture, and they categorically reject Treemonisha. The conjurers and preachers abduct her, basically because she tells them they sponge off of others. In the end Treemonisha is saved just in time by a friend and she is elected the leader of her community. She uses enlightment and reason to put and end to fear and superstion.

I like to use music as a metaphore in the emotional mediation of change processes (coaching) and in leadership. And Treemonisha helps me talk about some aspects I consider important for any person who embarks on the adventure of conscious change, be it your own change or facilitating others change.

Aspect 1: TIME. In a change process we all have our own timings, we need to know how to see, set and respect them. Every person must flow to the pace of their own beat (time). Scott Joplin wrote Treemonisha, but he never could premiere the orchestral version of it in his life time. A lot of years and ups and downs needed to pass by in order to see that premiere.

Aspect 2: COLLABORATION. There are goals which depend only on you. Some others, however, may involve many other people. A lot of people were involved in the orchestral version of Treemonisha, so that it could be premiered 58 years after Joplin’s death.

Aspect 3: FEAR. Fear is the major obstacle for change. To be aware of it is the first step to change. You have to confront your fears and learn new ways to get over them. Treemonisha beats her fear by leaving ignorance behind and becoming aware that life can not be based in irrational superstitions.

Aspect 4: PERSEVERANCE. When we become aware of things and learn something new that we want to integrate in our lives, we need to persevere. Treemonisha perseveres up to the end despite the threats and pressures by the instigators of superstition and fear.

ASPECT 5: REWARD. When we start an important change process we must be aware of the rewards of our endevours in our lives. Treemonisha’s reward is not only her liberation from fear, but also the liberation of the people in her community, who, in turn, place their trust on her to lead that change process.

Besides the musical enjoyment, Scott Joplin’s opera can also help us learn a little more about Afroamerican English. You can always learn new things and involve people around you in your learning… just in case it helps them too!

Michael Thallium
Global Greatness Coach
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