From the snare drum’s opening notes, even before the infamous melody begins, we instantly recognize Boléro. This oddly compelling music has entered popular culture through various media: the 1979 film 10, numerous television commercials, and the gold medal-winning performance by ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
Maurice Ravel would not have been surprised by Boléro’s enduring popularity; while he worked on it, the composer commented, “The piece I am working on will be so popular, even fruit peddlers will whistle it in the street.” Originally a ballet commission from Ida Rubenstein, formerly of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Boléro was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, and featured a Gypsy woman dancing on a table in a Spanish tavern, who whips her audience into uncontrolled sexual frenzy.
Rubenstein’s ballet was successful, but Boléro’s lasting fame came in the concert hall, most notably from a controversial performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1930. Not all listeners were seduced, however. One critic described Boléro as “… the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music … it is simply the incredible repetition of a single rhythm … and above it is the blatant recurrence of an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune.”
In response, Ravel wrote a letter in 1931 to the London Daily Telegraph: “It [Boléro] is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music – of one long, very gradual crescendo … I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.”
In 2012, the award-winning science podcast Radiolab presented an episode titled “Unraveling Bolero,” which suggested that Ravel might have been experiencing early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia (a degenerative brain disease involving the frontal lobe of the brain), as he wrote Boléro. One aspect of this disease manifests as an obsessive need for repetition, which is reflected in Boléro’s complete lack of thematic or rhythmic musical development. Six years after finishing Boléro, Ravel began to forget words and lose short-term memory. By 1935, two years before his death, he could no longer write or speak.
© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz