Ravel’s Rising Crescendo and Repetition

Saturday, January 26, 2013
Posted in category Music

It is impossible to write while Ravel’s Boléro is playing in the background on Pandora. The rising crescendo drives me mad, so I have to stand, and then I find I need to move around. So today I made a coffee and Kahlua. It must be the obsessive repetitiveness that stops my mind dead in its tracks. While I was conducting (pun intended) some recent independent studies of various themes in classical music, I came across this fascinating podcast on “Unraveling Boléro” about a biologist-turned-painter who became obsessed with Ravel’s Boléro as she came to grips with dementia.

In this podcast, a story about obsession, creativity, and a strange symmetry between a biologist and a composer that revolves around one famously repetitive piece of music.

I found the Anne Adams painting “Unraveling Boléro” to be fascinating, as well as representative of the emotions of Ravel’s impressionist classic. Here is more in the New Scientist about the neurologists who worked with Anne, and their speculations.



It has been said that Ravel was suffering from Alzheimer’s when he wrote Boléro. Once upon a time, NPR did a fascinating piece on this. According to Nature, a weekly journal of science, Ravel is thought to have had progressive dementia, and as such:

Orchestral timbres came to dominate his late music at the expense of melodic complexity because the left half of his brain deteriorated, they suggest1. Timbre is mainly the province of the brain’s right hemisphere.

The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini honored Ravel with the US premiere of Boléro in 1929. In 1934, George Raft and Carole Lombard starred in the (non-singing) musical Boléro. This fascinating website, “Boléro in Rock,” is dedicated to rock songs that feature Ravel’s rhythm.

While I was fortunate enough to see this amazing and passionate performance of Boléro by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra just a few months ago (and I could barely sit still), I have to give my nod as the best visual performance ever to Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. I have a great fondness for Gergiev, who always appears as if he stayed out all night drinking and showed up at the hall at the last minute to conduct. This video can be downloaded from iTunes in HD with stunning audio. Follow me on Twitter @karendecoster.

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One Response to Ravel’s Rising Crescendo and Repetition

  1. Susan says:

    January 26th, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Though familiar with Bolero, I gave it a listen with entirely fresh ears. Interestingly, I had the opposite reaction to it than you did: I think the repetition makes it so that I know what to expect, thus I can let it play out in the background (I’m listening to the second half as I write this comment) without having to give it my full attention…like I know it’s not going anywhere or making any sudden moves. Could it be the slow build-up that makes you unable to sit still? I have ADHD and I find repetition soothing; I know it drives many people crazy.

    I love how music has such an emotional AND physical impact (and rarely the same for everyone!). I dearly hope classical music doesn’t fade away after another generation or two…I believe it is as vital a way of communicating as great literature or oration. It’s a communication of soul.

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