Felix Arndt’s piece Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare, takes works by classical composers Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Sinding and rearranges them in a rag style, which was a popular musical genre in the early 1900s. Rag or ragtime is a musical genre that originated from and was created in African American communities. Rag can be identified by its syncopated rhythms and “ragged beat”. Rag was a precursor to the “swing” jazz and Blues, both musical traditions deeply rooted in Black culture, that developed throughout the 1910s and later years of the 20th century.
Scott Joplin, one of the first well-known composers of ragtime music and known as “The King of Ragtime”, stated the following in an interview for the newspaper New York Age: “that there had been “ragtime” music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago[in the 1890s].’”
Joplin was referring in part to the white composers and bands beginning to arrange their own ragtime music in the 1910s and 20s, and also to the rising popularity of ragtime being played in minstrel shows; “entertainment” in which actors or singers performed in blackface and utilized racist stereotypes in typically comedic skits at the expense of black people.
The increase in popularity of African American musical genres was met with opposition by many upper and middle class white people. This was especially true in the classical music sphere. A strong indication of this cultural sentiment is the presence of a counter culture to resist it, however superficial and performative some aspects of the movement might be.
Arndt was a white, middle class, classical pianist, and, even if he obviously has an appreciation for ragtime, it is evident he had no intention of furthering recognition and appreciation for black art-forms in the mainstream.
Desecration Rag, published in 1914, contained the subtle subtitle “Introducing ragtime perversions of “Humoresque (Dvorak)…””. The syncopated, ragtime beats Arndt included in his work were labelled a “perversion” of classical music, and thus, a “classical nightmare”, by no other than himself and his production team. Even in modern times, one could easily identify it as a shock-value publicity stunt.
To provide ragtime the same respect classical is given in the “mainstream”, is a tangentially different objective from instigating fear of the desecration of classical music.
If an artist sought to celebrate dialects, they would not call them a “Desecration of the English Language”, as that would elicit an immediate negative response, and attract “purists”. An artist would only do this to create controversy, an endeavor most lucrative in the artistic profession.
What Arndt’s piece elicited was the expected reaction from both conservative and more liberal white audiences, a reaction that entirely relies on anti-blackness, elitism, and young artists rebelling against the status quo. Arndt was not publishing this record in recognition of the brilliance of ragtime, or to empower those who pioneered it; he was just taking advantage of white middle class fears to evoke an emotional response from an early 20th Century audience, which now paints a staggeringly clear picture of racism in America.
Arndt, F. & Arndt, F. (1914) Desecration rag A classic nightmare. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-134701/.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 24). Ragtime. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragtime.