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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Unraveling Bolero

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November is the month in our blogging activities when we take time to remember artists and composers we have lost – next week, I plan a Playlist featuring Sir Colin Davis. Today’s Podcast Vault selection goes back to last year’s month-long look at the 75th anniversary of the passing of four composers: Gershwin, Widor, Vierne and Ravel. The podcast I chose is my Ravel homage, and will also introduce a very interesting NPR podcast that was brought to my attention (more on that later).

According to the All Music Group , Maurice Ravel was among the most significant and influential composers of the early twentieth century. Although he is frequently linked with Claude Debussy as an exemplar of musical impressionism, and some of their works have a surface resemblance, Ravel possessed an independent voice that grew out of his love of a broad variety of styles, including the French Baroque, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Spanish folk traditions, and American jazz and blues. His elegant and lyrically generous body of work was not large in comparison with that of some of his contemporaries, but his compositions are notable for being meticulously and exquisitely crafted. He was especially gifted as an orchestrator, an area in which he remains unsurpassed.

Those of you who read the Tuesday Blog regularly will remember that last November, I featured a selection of Ravel’s piano works . Ravel could be slightly obsessive in the way he allowed certain musical interests to reappear throughout his compositions. Two such interests were dance and the past, and in Valses nobles et sentimentales one can hear how Ravel was able to effectively fuse these two curiosities together.

Later, Ravel would render Valses Nobles for orchestra, something he has done often with his piano works. In that vein, I programmed his orchestration of Menuet Antique. Tzigane, his work in the Gypsy style with its long violin solo introduction is sometimes set in chamber form or for orchestral accompaniment – which is the format I chose today.

American jazz and blues became increasingly intriguing to Ravel. In 1928 he made a hugely successful tour of North America, where he met George Gershwin and had the opportunity to broaden his exposure to jazz. The Piano Concerto in G show the influence of that interest.

To close out the montage, Ravel’s most recognizable work – Boléro. Ravel completed it in 1928, at age 53. Boléro alternates between two main melodic themes, repeating the pair eight times over 340 bars with increasing volume and layers of instrumentation. In parallel, the piece holds methodically to two simple, alternating, staccato bass lines. It is an exercise in compulsivity that builds without a key change until its 326th bar, when it stridently accelerates into a collapsing finale. It is famous to historians and record-books for ostensibly containing the longest-sustained single crescendo anywhere in the orchestral repertory; it is famous to collectors of anecdotes for having been humorously dubbed a "piece for orchestra without music" by Ravel; and it is famous to musicians and music lovers for being both the most repetitive 15 minutes of music they are likely to play/hear and also one of the most absolutely well-composed 15 such minutes.

Going back to the AMG bio of Ravel, , an injury he sustained in a 1932 automobile accident started a physical decline that resulted in memory loss and an inability to communicate. He died in 1937, following brain surgery. This, however I found out recently, is a gross misrepresentation of the illness plaguing Ravel’s final years. In fact, the beautifully obsessive Boléro may be a vital clue in understanding those dark years.

Molecular biologist turned artist Anne Adams just painted and painted and painted. First houses and buildings, then a series of paintings involving strawberries, and then ... "Boléro." At some point, Anne became obsessed with Maurice Ravel's famous composition and decided to put an elaborate visual rendition of the song to canvas. She called it "Unraveling Bolero."

The below podcast link tells the story of how, for both Anne and Ravel, "Boléro" might have been the first symptom of a deadly disease known as Primary Progressive Aphasia:

According to an article by neuroscientists from the University of California – San Francisco, Ravel aphasia may have begun, subclinically, around the time Boléro was composed, when his handwriting began to deteriorate. Overt declines, at first limited to spelling errors in musical scores and letters, were indisputable by 1931. Symptoms progressed relentlessly thereafterL speech and language declined, with halting and frustrated output but relatively preserved comprehension for both language and music. Ravel died due to complications of an attempted neurosurgical treatment in 1937.

Like Aaron Copland and so many other American composers of his time, David Diamond traveled to Paris to study and absorb the latest artistic trends. There, in 1928, he met Maurice Ravel then at the height of his reputation. Diamond struck up a friendship with the French master that lasted until the latter's death. Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel was the young Diamond's expression of grief at this great loss.

ITYWLTMT Podcast Montage #78 – In Memoriam: Maurice Ravel
(Originally issued on Friday, November 2nd, 2012)

David DIAMOND (1915-2005)
Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel (1938-39)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, conducting

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Valses nobles et sentimentales for piano, MR 61
Francine Kay, piano

Tzigane, concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra, MR 76
Itzhak Perlman, violin
Orchestre de Paris, Jean Martinon, conducting

Menuet antique, MR 7
(orchestrated by Ravel, 1929)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit, conducting

Concerto, in G Major, for piano and orchestra, MR 83
Pascal Rogé, piano
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit, conducting

Boléro, MR 81
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit, conducting

November 8, 2013, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "In Memoriam: Mario Bernardi" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel . Read more November 8 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.

Updated Nov-05-2013 at 11:30 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Composers , Recorded Music