When asked about my favourite Classical Piece of the 20th Century (not that I ever am), I immediately think of Maurice Ravel’s one-movement piece ‘Bolero’. By combining European and Latin sounds into a full-scale orchestral composition, Ravel produced a piece that is not only triumphant and beautiful, but remarkably catchy.
Commissioned in 1928 by ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein as a “choreographed poem”, Maurice Ravel came up with the idea for the piece when, while on vacation in the French countryside, he found that a melody he was playing on the piano had a very insistent value to it. It is rumoured that the piece is modelled after the act of sex, which makes sense considering the playfulness, exuberance and… repetition… of the piece.
A constant ostinato rhythm serves as a foundation of the piece. This rhythm is derived from the slow-tempo Latin dance genre known as Bolero, hence the title of the piece. With only the snare drum repeating the rhythm at the beginning, two main melodies slowly flow into the piece.
This is where the genius of the song comes in, for over the duration of the piece these two melodies never change. The key (C Major) doesn’t change, nor does the tempo. It is the the timbre and instrumentation that change, with the piece being passed among the orchestra and growing thicker as the piece goes on. While it opens with a quiet and soft flute section, the full-blown orchestra ends it with extravagance. The piece is essentially one big gradual, grandiose and glorious crescendo.
The most fascinating part of Bolero’s context is how Maurice Ravel’s mental health affected the composition of the piece. Ravel had Frontotemporal Dementia; a clinical syndrome that affects the region of the brain associated with memory, attention and motivation. As such, one of the very early symptoms of FTD is perseveration; ‘the tendency for a memory or idea to persist or recur without any apparent stimulus for it’. While it is tragic that mental illness crippled such a great artist, it may have been this great illness that allowed him to create his masterpiece. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh?
I am truly obsessed with this piece. Maurice Ravel moulded a hypnotic rhythm, playful spirit, memorable theme and uniquely brilliant structure into orchestral brilliance. There is so much beauty to unravel in Bolero.
Thanks for reading!
Austin Bond, 10H