Three Ghost Rags

This work is a set of three pianos by American composer William Bolcom (1938). Published in 1970, these rags are often describes as being true to the genre, yet containing the sophistication of classical music. As a composer, Bolcom worked to break down the barriers between contemporary genres and other
“serious” music. These pieces are an example of this effort.

I. Graceful Ghost Rag

His most famous rag, and probably also his most famous work, this rag was written in memory of his father. The A section begins in a delicate and light Bb minor. It is described as a more sophisticated rag because in addition to the rag progression and style (a “boom-chuck” bassline with a melody in octaves or chords, one that often has dissonances on the strong beats), it has more difficult (perhaps even virtuosic) techniques, such as counterpoint within voices of a single hand (typically the right), as shown in this example in the B section:

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Instead of returning right to the A, Bolcom adds an extended C section. It is very beautiful, modulating to Gb major. It sounds almost reverent (keep in mind this piece is dedicated to his father), and makes its way back to the A section with a very interesting chromatic line with flats galore:

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II. Poltergeist

A poltergeist is a folklorish ghost that is able to interact with physical objects. Poltergeists were often blamed for unexplained disturbances with inanimate objects (whether falling or breaking unexpectedly, etc), leading them to be characterized as rather mischievous ghosts. This is not lost to Bolcom, who uses this characterization to create a mischievous rag. The main theme is quick, quiet, and chromatic, and the piece contains areas of sharp dynamic contrasts. Notice the section below in which Bolcom contrasts wispy pianissimo figures with a fortissimo chord clusters…very mischievous!

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III. Dream Sequence

A fairly challenging rag with some sections that sound as grand as some of the romantics, this rag seemingly is not played as much as the first two, because it is more difficult to find exceptional recordings of it on the internet. This could be because the left hand plays a lot more three note chords in the left hand in which the outer voices are tenths. The Captain has had experience with such accompaniment patterns and unless you have big hands you will need to scoop them:

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Publishers of Bolcom’s music include:

  • Edward B. Marks Music Company

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Daniel Berman
  • William Bolcom himself!

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

Rags are truly wonderful. Both classical folks and jazzers love them. This piece of american culture is one that the Captain is most proud of, and though these rags are not quite as special as Joplin’s, they do give the rag a classical flavor. The Graceful Ghost Rag is both the most well known and the most approachable for undergrads and intermediate pianists who like to walk the classical/jazz line. As long as the performer is swinging it, the Captain is digging it.

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