Christensen’s Ragtime Review
Prepared by Vashti Gray Sadjedy
Online only (2009)
Christensen’s Ragtime Review was published monthly from December 1914 through February 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. While the journal was primarily an advertising device for Axel Christensen’s schools, pedagogical materials, and compositions, it also serves as a useful repository of reviews of contemporary popular music and musicians, insights on the difficulties of performing for vaudeville or for the accompaniment of motion pictures, and sheet music of long-forgotten popular songs.
The founder and principal editor of Christensen’s Ragtime Review was Axel Waldemar Christensen (1881-1955). Born in Chicago, he developed a system simplifying ragtime piano playing into three integral melodic and rhythmic patterns, which he referred to as “movements.” This became the basis for the Christensen System of Ragtime Piano Playing. This system was codified in a series of method books, the most popular being Christensen’s Ragtime Instruction Book for Piano, and was taught in branch schools across the United States known as Christensen Schools of Popular Music. From his first small teaching studio in 1903, his empire expanded so rapidly that by 1914 there were fifty branches, and by 1918 these schools existed in most major cities in the United States. By 1935, approximately 500,000 students (predominantly Caucasian) had studied in these schools. So successful was Christensen, in fact, that he dubbed himself the “Czar of Ragtime.”
Christensen was also a prolific composer and arranger of ragtime music. His earliest known composition was “Ragtime Wedding March (Apologies to Mendelssohn)” (1902). Many of his works, including the aforementioned work, “Marching Thro’ Georgia” (1909), and “The Minnesota Rag” (1913) were reprinted in Christensen’s Ragtime Review. The journal also featured ragtime sheet music from now-forgotten composers such as Grace Darling, Robert Hampton, and Bernard Brin.
Among the journal’s regular features were a continuing instructional series on the topic of vaudeville piano playing, reviews of recently published music from G. W. Corbett and Jane Lamoureux, fictional stories from Peter Frank Meyer and Lamoureux, humorous poetry from J. Forrest Thompson and Bernard Brin, and updates on the activities of Christensen schools across the country from Robert Marine, Fritz and Courtland Christiani, and Marcella A. Henry. In keeping with the journal’s aim to promote Christensen’s various enterprises, an underlying theme throughout Christensen’s Ragtime Review was the propriety of ragtime, its potential longevity, and its position as uniquely American music. Numerous comparisons were made between ragtime and classical music, arguing that both popular and art music were worthy of respect and that ragtime was the musical genre most indicative of the contemporary American spirit. Despite its often colloquial tone, Christensen’s Ragtime Review reflects important contemporary issues such as the search for a distinctively American music, the general uncertainty as to the best direction for “modern” music, and the difficulties of being a professional musician during such a period of cultural upheaval.