The Graceful Ghost

I haven’t done a post like this in a long time! Truthfully, I meant for this to be a “Music Monday” Post, but I got a little preoccupied practicing my instrument and watching the Lorena docuseries (and eating dinner with a friend) to finish it in time so now it is just an anyday-of-the-week music appreciation post about a new piece I am working on.

Recently, I started putting together a few recital programs worth of music that I’ve always wanted to play. Delving into new solo repertoire has been a really enjoyable endeavor and enhances my love of this instrument. Rather than just practicing repertoire for orchestra concerts and excerpts for auditions, I have added several sonatas and various other solo selections to my regular practice regiment. I spent quite a bit of time researching music and eventually selected several pieces that were either entirely new to me, or that I was fairly unfamiliar with. I realized after some investigation that there are some vastly underrated pieces in the violin world that deserve a little more attention and spotlight. I am dedicating several of my Music Monday posts (even if they don’t get published until Wednesday) to the discoveries I have made, and the selections that I have decided to learn and one day, hopefully quite soon, perform.


The first piece from my chosen Recital Repertoire is “The Graceful Ghost” by William Bolcom.  

I first came across this charming piece for violin and piano several years ago when sight-reading through music with my dear friend James Barnett, the creator of the LOFT recital series in Minneapolis.

The piece is titled “Graceful Ghost Rag, Concert Variation for Violin and Piano.” It was written in 1979 and was originally a solo piano piece that the composer arranged for violin and piano. According to 

William Bolcom had a strong interest in classic American popular music, especially ragtime. Graceful Ghost, his most popular composition, sprang from that interest. Bolcom’s earlier career was centered on New York City and Yale University. While in New York, he investigated the great compositions of the ragtime era (roughly 1890 to 1925), exemplified by composers such as Joplin, Turpin, Hayden, and others. His investigation into their proper interpretation (especially Joplin's recurring but widely overlooked admonition never to play ragtime fast) led him to becoming a leading pianist in the ragtime revival of the 1960s, along with Paul Jacobs and Joshua Rifkin, among others. Among the items Bolcom recorded was his own set of Three Ghost Rags, a commemoration of his late father. Graceful Ghost, with a stately, benign melody and a wistful sense of loss, was the breakout hit of the album on which it appeared and has remained Bolcom's most widely known composition. (The other two "ghost rags" are Poltergeist and Dream Shadows.) 

In 1979, Bolcom prepared the violin version, which he and Sergiu Luca played in 1981. It eschews bravura effects, instead concentrating on the violin's lyrical qualities in sonorities, mainly at mezzo piano and quieter. There appears to be a slight expansion of the piece in this version, including a little more material in the accompaniment to compensate for the lines that are lifted from the original piano piece to the violin. However, the violin does not simply take all the melodic material. Instead, the melodies pass weightlessly from the keyboard to the violin, requiring close interpretive sympathy and each instrumentalist's ability to pick up the other's phrasing and dynamics. Lacking that quality, the music becomes earthbound, preventing the ghost from serenely floating in the violin part. 

The Graceful Ghost is performed and recorded quite regularly BUT what I find really interesting is that this piece is a Rag. A Rag is a style of music originally credited to Scott Joplin that became popular around the beginning of the twentieth century. It is classified as a type of jazz ‘that emphasizes a syncopated melody with a heavily accented accompaniment part. Ragtime music is in 2/4.” (from the free dictionary

The interesting question is “to swing, or not to swing” – in many forms of Jazz the melodic line is “swung” meaning that the rhythm is relaxed so that two eight notes (or sixteenth notes) form a long-short relationship with the first of every pair receiving more impetus/inflection/accent. Ragtime is not typically a style of music that receives this treatment, and if you listen to early recordings of Scott Joplin play his own compositions they are quite strict and in time, especially when compared to more contemporary performers.

Here is a comparison (sometimes the internet is so cool):

Maple leaft Rag, recorded on Pianola Roll actually played by Scott Joplin, this piano roll was found in the wrong box on Ebay apparently, and turned out to be a long lost Joplin recording
Dario Ronchi plays the Maple Leaf Rag to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin's death.

When researching this piece and listening to different versions, I heard several different approaches – some swing and some don’t. Some take great liberties with the timing, some play it fast, and others play it slow. So what is correct? Well, I watched a ton of videos, and listened to countless recordings. Below are a few for you to compare. I can’t play all of the videos here, but here are a few of my favorite performances – of the original piano version, as well as the violin and piano version.

I am still coming to my own conclusions about how to interpret this piece, but I think I will reflect on Joplin’s upright rhythmic nature, and refrain from swinging throughout this piece. I love the melodic line of this piece, I also love the sonorities and how this piece is both somber and playful. I think that is the charm of this piece, and most likely why it has remained one of Bolcom’s most popular compositions. I hope you enjoy both versions of this piece. Which is your favorite from this selection? Leave a comment below.

Piano Solo

This piece is now available on Barron's album 'Classical with Attitude'. Purchase at Barron performs 'Graceful Ghost Rag' by William Bolcom. For more information on Barron, visit You can also like him on Facebook: ... or follow him on Twitter:
William Bolcom's Graceful Ghost Rag played by Aaron Robinson.
Performed by Richard Dowling, Piano.
Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment Graceful Ghost Rag · Leon Fleisher · William Bolcom · Katherine Jacobson Four Hands ℗ 2015 Leon Fleisher, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment Editor, Mastering Engineer, Mixing Engineer, Producer: Adam Abeshouse Auto-generated by YouTube.

Violin and Piano

A live performance of William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag" from PORTALS, a multimedia concert about the ways in which we connect in the digital age Special thanks to KANEKO music composed by William Bolcom produced and performed by Tim Fain with pianist Nicholas Britell films co-produced and directed by Kate Hackett director of photography Cat Deakins lighting designed by Roderick Murray set designed by Francois-Pierre Couture recorded by M.
American Short Pieces for violin and piano
Sarena Hsu 2nd Graduate Violin Recital @ SFCM April 25, 2014

This next one is in the original key of B-flat (the violin version was transcribed to A minor).

William Bolcom- Graceful Ghost Rag :YeonKyung Joo's violin recital encore piece. Assisted by pianist Hea Jung Cho.

Buy Sheet music:

look inside Graceful Ghost Rag - Concert Variation Violin and Piano. Composed by William Bolcom. Piano. American, Jazz, Ragtime, Classical, Contemporary. 12 pages. Published by Edward B. Marks Music (HL.9430).