First of all, according to the dictionary, Nonpareil is pronounced "non-pa-REL" (if you're American) and "non-pa-RAIL" (if you're British). It means "unrivaled" or "peerless" or as the sheet music below defines it -- "none to equal." A nonpareil is also a kind of candy and a kind of caper. Do not confuse the two, or you might end up with Chicken Piccata smothered in chocolate.
A few years ago I podcasted about Scott Joplin's "Nonpareil" and the meaning of the word, but just now, upon seeing the Collins Dictionary definition, I realize I had missed yet another definition. Apparently, a nonpareil can also be a "painted bunting." Which is a kind of bird. Here is the male Nonpareil:
And here is the original sheet music cover:
That's a bunting alright...But not a nonpareil bunting. They got their buntings mixed up!
Here's my theory on how this sheet music ended up with a flag-bunting on the cover:
First: Joplin composed his rag and named it "The Nonpareil," but he did not intend it to be about buntings of any kind. Joplin surely used "nonpareil" as a superlative. In "King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era," Edward A. Berlin points out that other musicians in Joplin's orbit were billing themselves as "nonpareil." Surely they were not calling themselves buntings. They were touting themselves as "none-to-equal."
After Joplin submitted his Nonpareil (the rag) to the Stark Music Publishing Company, it was somebody's job to decide what to put on the sheet music cover. Somebody looked up "Nonpareil" in the dictionary, saw the "none-to-equal" and "bunting" definitions and decided to acknowledge both in the cover art. They put an American flag bunting on there, not realizing that the dictionary was referring to the bird bunting. Whoops! But it worked out fine. The scene on the cover, with Uncle Sam holding up the bunting, implies that the USA (and its flag) are none-to-equal. Clever! And a nice patriotic sentiment. It has nothing to do with a Nonpareil bunting, (which is a bird) and isn't what Joplin had in mind (which was neither a flag nor a bird), but hey, it still works.
So that's my theory on how a bunting - but not a Nonpareil bunting - ended up on the sheet music cover.
Behold, two types of buntings, but only one is a nonpareil:
Now let's talk about the music, shall we?
I love Joplin's "Nonpareil." I suspect that Joplin had a large ensemble in mind when he composed this. I say this because the second section (at 0:50 in the video below) has a wonderful left-hand melodic line that screams trombone section. I take the liberty of doubling the octaves to really bring out those trombones.
Get out the bunting of your choice and tap your foot to "The Nonpareil:"
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Music, stories and thoughts from an old-time piano player.