Joplin's 'Bethena' Sounds As New As It Is Old
The new Brad Pitt movie about the backward aging of Benjamin Button features one of Scott Joplin's lesser-known rags, "Bethena." As Joplin famously noted of all his compositions, "It is never right to play 'ragtime' fast," while his concert waltz "Bethena" adds the direction "cantabile" — "as if singing." Randy Kerber, a Grammy-nominated California pianist, composer and arranger, obeys both commands. His fingers set a deliberate pace and never run away with the rag. He's unafraid to slow down from time to time to let the inherent wistfulness of the music emerge. In sections in a major key, there's a joyous quality that functions as part of Joplin's essence; the piano really does sing. Yet with its sprinkling of minor chords, at times "Bethena" seems on the verge of tears.
When Joplin wrote the waltz in 1905, his wife of two months had just died; Bethena may well have been her nickname. Now, more than a century later, the song is perfectly suited for the Benjamin Button movie. In spite of its age, "Bethena" sounds as fresh as it if were written just minutes ago, a tender and heartfelt remembrance of a love lost.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.