February 23, 1998



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Nearly everyone with even a smattering of classical music knowledge is familiar with Ravel's Bolero. Indeed, its incredible popularity eventually annoyed even Maurice Ravel himself.

In recent years, Bolero was featured in the movie "10" (1979) as an accompaniment to Bo Derek's lovemaking, as well as being utilized by Torvill and Dean, the renowned British ice dancing couple, in the mid-1980's.

Could this exciting composition have been the product of a very troubled brain?

The throbbing rhythm of the orchestral piece is said to be an example of "musical perseveration," indicating that Ravel was in the early stages of dementia, according to Dr. Eva Cybulska, a psychiatrist in Dartford, England. Perseveration is the endless repetition of a word, sound, or action in response to a stimulus, and is characteristic of sufferers from Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative conditions of the brain. In the case of Bolero, the same musical phrase is repeated 18 times without variation, although the differences in orchestration demonstrate the brilliance of the composer.

To be sure, Ravel did show the first signs of neurological problems in 1927, at age 52, the year before Bolero was introduced. In 1929, he developed muscle problems and aphasia (impaired communication skills--eventually he could no longer speak, read, or write). Unsuccessful brain surgery led to his death in Paris on Dec. 28, 1937.

Being up against it was, unfortunately, not a new experience for Ravel. In 1889, at 14, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he remained until 1905. During this period, he composed some of his best known works, including the Pavane pour une infante défunte, the Sonatine for piano, and the String Quartet. Although he entered three times, he never won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition (the works he submitted were judged too "advanced" by ultraconservative members of the jury).

Protests were filed, and as a result, the director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign. He was replaced by Gabriel Fauré, with whom Ravel had studied composition.

Ravel's personal life was not terribly eventful. He served in World War I for a short time as a truck driver at the front, and was discharged from the army in 1917. He never married.

For Ravel, according to some critics, "music was a kind of ritual, having its own laws, to be conducted behind high walls, sealed off from the outside world, and impenetrable to unauthorized intruders." Igor Stravinsky compared Ravel to "the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers," no doubt extolling those qualities of intricacy and precision to which Stravinsky attached so much importance.

Maurice Ravel--a troubled genius and superb composer. Was he helped or hurt by dementia?


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