Ravel's Bolero comes under psychiatric investigation

July 17, 2004 at 07:10 PM · Ravel's Bolero comes under psychiatric investigation

A British study, published in today's Psychiatric Bulletin, suggests that Ravel's Bolero, reputed to be the most often played composition in the repertoire, was the work of a pathological mind. Dr Eva Cybulska, the author of the study, claims that the famous melody repeated 18 times without change during the course of the piece demonstrates that the French composer was possibly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. The Kent-based psychiatrist claims that perseveration, an obsession with repeating words and gestures, is one of the more notable symptoms of this pathology. In other words, the repetitive nature of the score's principal theme is symptomatic of the degenerative condition which began to trouble the French composer in 1927 at the age of 52. Was it really Alzheimer's disease or the budding tumor which later killed Ravel during brain surgery in 1937?

Interesting stuff huu?

Could you imagine playing Paganini with Alzheimer's?


Replies (20)

July 17, 2004 at 07:16 PM · I thought he wrote this as a student, as an exercise in making an orchestral crescendo. I love most works by Ravel but I just can't stand this one! I'd say that he had a pretty sharp mind, judging from La Valse, etc.

July 17, 2004 at 07:19 PM · wonder what she'd say about Phillip Glass

July 17, 2004 at 08:17 PM · You know I've always had an urge to be the drummer in Bolero....

July 17, 2004 at 08:23 PM · It certainly didn't seem to bother him in the piano concertos or the violin sonata...

I always thought that Bolero was written in his younger years, but I just looked it up and it's from 1928. I guess that's another Ravel myth to go along with the one about his hearing the Carmen Fantasy, boasting that he could write a better gypsy showpiece and then writing Tzigane.

July 17, 2004 at 10:58 PM · Marty, I was just thinking that too, except I was thinking of Steve Reich... it goes for much Minimalism, doesn't it? Not to mention just about any contemporary 'dance' music I can think of.

July 17, 2004 at 11:01 PM · Did they say anything about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

July 18, 2004 at 12:32 AM · At the very core of the composition's structure is the fact that although the melody repeats many consecutive times, the *music* does not! It is constantly changing. Therefore Dr. Cybulska's thesis seems like a non-issue to me.

July 18, 2004 at 05:39 AM · The journal is not a reliable medical journal. Though it is thought provoking, I will not put too much weight on this paper. I don't want to follow the advise of a below-average medical researcher, just like I don't want to learn ini concerto from someone who have never played ini.

July 18, 2004 at 10:03 PM · I'm surprised that that article was even published. First of all, it shows pretty shoddy research and musical understanding. Second, what a venomous thing to say!

July 18, 2004 at 10:16 PM · She would never write this article if she was an orchestra player and played this Bolero. It's really fun to play it and meet different orchestral tembres each time when the new variation appears.

July 19, 2004 at 05:24 AM · Can't everyone relate to this song? Even children are known for singing songs with repetetive verses that never end. We are missing a few steps to conclude that repetition means one has Alzheimer's. Besides, an Alzheimer's patient couldn't compose something like that. I personally find that piece to be quite a maddening success, breaking free from traditional compositional ideas at that time. I love the building persistence. If one were to choose to compose a piece that represents madness, that wouldn't mean that the composer himself was mad. A madman does not construct his own madness, or does he? I find the piece to be well though out. I remember hearing that upon the premier of Bolero, a woman had shouted, "He is mad!" To this, Ravel said that she understood the piece. Whether this is true or not, I don't know. But I do know what it is to feel madness.

July 19, 2004 at 12:59 PM · "This is the song that doesn't end. Yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and then continued singing it forever just because it is the song that doesn't end. Yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people..."

July 19, 2004 at 03:11 PM · Not only does this theory reveal a poor understanding of composition it also reveals considerable ignorance about Alzheimer's. It's much more than a loss of memory or concentration. It's a degenration of the thought processes altogether. I get into the same argument sometimes when I hear people claim that Reagan had Alzheimer's when he was president because he had trouble remembering names. Reagan was in his 70s as president, and a certain amount of memory loss is normal at that age. But he wasn't diagnosed with Alzheimer's until he was in his 80s. At that point he was having trouble making associations, remembering people, even understanding who or where he was. It would be difficult for somebody in that condition to compose at all, much less produce a classic like Bolero.

July 20, 2004 at 12:34 AM · An illness generally begins before it is diagnosed...

July 20, 2004 at 12:44 AM · Ben, I really like your response!

July 20, 2004 at 01:06 AM · Ravel wrote Bolero as an orchestral exercise. It was never supposed to be so popularized. Unfortionately, it was.

July 21, 2004 at 01:06 AM · Ravel called it "a piece for orchestra without music" desgined as an exercise in tone color.

July 21, 2004 at 09:23 PM · Ravel wrote the Bolero supposedly as a bet that he can write a 15 minute piece of music in only one key, C Major without being boring. Tongue in cheek at the end of it, where he brilliantly moved from C Major to E Major for one variation. I don't know what the bet was for but I'm sure he won hands down.

July 25, 2004 at 01:58 AM · But, but, but... I always thought he wrote the piece as a response to a challenge to write a piece with the same melody used a certain number of times (I forget the number), so I looked it up. Here is what I found:

"The idea of writing a piece that consisted of a single theme that is allowed to grow exclusively through harmonic and instrumental treatment was not something that occurred overnight in Ravel's mind. He had been thinking of something along these lines for some time when the dancer Ida Rubenstein asked Ravel to orchestrate the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz' Iberia. Though Ravel was interested in the project, he was miffed when he learned that the orchestration rights to all of Albeniz' music had been assigned to someone else. The stage had been set to bring the idea to fruition.

"Ravel decided to use the opportunity to compose something entirely original, but within the Spanish idiom. Taking not a single theme but a subject and a counter-subject, both in bolero rhythm, Ravel allowed them to develop solely through instrumental color and sonority.


Also check:



Do an internet search and find more... this story is corroborated on at least 888 pages! It looks like someone didn't do their research before writing this article...?

'Erie (-:

July 26, 2004 at 08:52 AM · I did a great deal of research about Ravel and his music about 10 years ago and as far as i remember (without my research in front of me) Ravel himself, later in his life actually commented that he disliked the piece saying something like "It takes repitition to it's limit and beyond". (Or something like that).

Later in his life Ravels music changed from being driven, not by the harmonies which characterise his early music (7th, 9th, 11th chords etc.) but very much driven by the melody. Concentrating on developing the line of the melody as the primary interest in his music (listen to his sonata for violin and cello) - Bolero in this respect was unusual for this time in his life and this research seems to have taken completely out of context.

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