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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.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.