Joplin was the pre-eminent composer of piano ragtime. Working primarily in a popular idiom, he strove for a ‘classical’ excellence in his music and recognition as a composer of artistic merit, rather than one simply of popular acclaim. Although he lavished much of his creative efforts on extended works, it was with his piano rags – miniatures rarely exceeding 68 bars of music – that he attained greatness. Both he and Stark referred to these pieces as ‘classic rags’, comparing their artistic merit to that of European classics. The comparison is not unwarranted, for Joplin clearly sought to transcend the indifferent and commonplace quality of most ragtime. This aim is evident in his comments regarding his music, in his plea for faithful renderings of his scores and – most of all – in the care and skill with which he crafted his compositions. Joplin’s rags, unlike those of most of his contemporaries, are notable for their melodically interesting inner voices, consistent and logical voice-leading, subtle structural relationships and rich chromatic harmonies supported by strongly directed bass lines. These qualities are all apparent in Rose Leaf Rag, where Joplin also replaces the traditional ragtime bass pattern with an original figure. Throughout his music Joplin reveals himself as a composer of substance.
A renewed interest in Joplin’s music began in the early 1940s, though such interest remained limited until the ragtime revival of the 1970s, when most of his works were reissued, performed and analysed; Treemonisha was lavishly staged and recorded. Public acclaim and official recognition came in the form of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and a commemorative postage stamp in 1983.