Ravel’s Rising Crescendo and Repetition

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It is impossible to write while Ravel’s Boléro is playing in the background on Pandora. The rising crescendo drives me to energy, so I have to stand, and then I find I need to move around. 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.

7:15 am on January 27, 2013