No one would deny that the sometimes beloved, often reviled Boléro by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is repetitive. The French composer himself criticized his most popular work as "a piece for orchestra, without music." Could Boléro have been a manifestation of Ravel's growing dementia?
Originally commissioned in 1928 by ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein as a "choreographed poem," the 15-minute work is dominated by a repetitive, hypnotic rhythm. Weaving through these driving beats are two themes, passed around the different sections of the orchestra and each repeated eight times.
Changes in the work's dynamic level — which builds throughout the piece to a bombastic, crashing end, increasing as different instruments carry and pass on the melody — manifest the only variations in the work.
One could argue that Boléro is a great study in the art of orchestration and presents Ravel as a master arranger, making the most of a fleeting musical idea.
But in recent years, psychiatric researchers have offered another possible explanation. They suggest that the repetition in Boléro could reflect a manifestation of Alzheimer's disease, or some other serious mental deterioration.
Perseveration, an Alzheimer's symptom, is the obsession of repeating words or actions, and could have been the mastermind behind Ravel's infamous masterpiece.
It is known that beginning in 1927 or 1928 — the year he wrote Boléro — Ravel began to experience perplexing health problems. In the last five years of his life, the act of composing became exceedingly difficult and he lost the ability to write out his music. Ravel died in December 28, 1937, nine days after exploratory brain surgery.