Joplin spent his childhood in northeastern Texas, though the exact date and place of his birth are unknown. By 1880 his family had moved to Texarkana, where he studied piano with local teachers. Joplin traveled through the Midwest from the mid-1880s, performing at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Settling in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1895, he studied music at the George R. Smith College for Negroes and hoped for a career as a concert pianist and classical composer. His first published songs brought him fame, and in 1900 he moved to St. Louis to work more closely with the music publisher John Stark.
Joplin published his first extended work, a ballet suite using the rhythmic devices of ragtime, with his own choreographical directions, in 1902. His first opera, A Guest of Honor (1903), is no longer extant and may have been lost by the copyright office. Moving to New York City in 1907, Joplin wrote an instruction book, The School of Ragtime, outlining his complex bass patterns, sporadic syncopation, stop-time breaks, and harmonic ideas, which were widely imitated. Joplin’s contract with Stark ended in 1909, and, though he made piano rolls in his final years, most of Joplin’s efforts involved Treemonisha, which synthesized his musical ideas into a conventional, three-act opera. He also wrote the libretto, about a mythical black leader, and choreographed it. Treemonisha had only one semipublic performance during Joplin’s lifetime; he became obsessed with its success, suffered a nervous breakdown and collapse in 1911, and was institutionalized in 1916.
Joplin’s reputation as a composer rests on his classic rags for piano, including “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” published from 1899 through 1909, and his opera, Treemonisha, published at his own expense in 1911. Treemonisha was well received when produced by an Atlanta, Georgia, troupe on Broadway in 1972, and interest in Joplin and ragtime was stimulated in the 1970s by the use of his music in the Academy Award-winning score to the film The Sting.