I have been in the market for a new educational podcast for a long time and, for whatever reason, decided to take the leap into the Radiolab back catalogue. One of the first episodes I listened to was a short from 2012 entitled ‘Unravelling Bolero‘, where they talk about Ravel and a painter called Anne Adams and the mental deterioration that they both went through before dying. In this podcast the experts posit that there are signs in Boléro that provide a hint of the neurological disorder Ravel would eventually die of.
With this in mind it was extra interesting to listen to this piece of music. You see, in the 15 minutes of Boléro we have the same melody repeated over and over and over again by various sections of the orchestra. As the repeated melody circulates around the orchestra 17 times you can just feel it build and build until the end where it feels like they are going to explode.
There is a limit to how much you can repeat the same melody and I think Ravel pretty much hits this with Boléro. However there is a hypnotic beauty to it, which was used to brilliant effect in this clip from Allegro non troppo (an Italian pastiche of Fantasia) which depicts a fictional sequence of evolution:
This will not be the last piece of classical music of Ravel that I listen to for this list – far from it in fact – but this is one of the final pieces of his music to be featured. Considering his mental decline after creating Boléro, this feels all the more poignant.