Bolero: the work of a man going mad

Jeremy Laurance@jeremylaurance
Wednesday 03 September 1997 23:02

Maurice Ravel's Bolero, one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written, displays signs that it was composed by a diseased mind, according to a psychiatrist.

The throbbing rhythm of the orchestral piece, which achieved saturation exposure after it was selected by the Olympic skaters Torvill and Dean as part of their competition programme, is an example of "musical perseveration", indicating that Ravel was in the early stages of dementia.

Perseveration is the endless repetition of a word or 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 or evolution.

Writing in the Psychiatric Bulletin, Dr Eva Cybulska, a psychiatrist in Dartford, Kent, says: "The most striking feature of Bolero is the throbbing rhythm of obsessive almost hallucinatory insistence, a sort of `danse macabre'."

Ravel, who was born in 1875, showed the first signs of the neurological problems that were to blight his last decade in 1927, the year before he composed Bolero. He became disorientated during a performance of his music and also began to make blunders while writing music.

He recovered and completed a successful tour of the United States in 1928 but four years later his dementia worsened after a car accident. He could not speak, read or write and lost control of his movements. Although his memory, judgement and aesthetic sense were preserved, his ability to express himself was progressively impeded: a mind trapped in an unresponsive body.

Dr Cybulska said yesterday that she had been drawn to investigate Ravel's background after being puzzled by the effect Bolero had on her.

"It is a very haunting, attractive and sensual piece of music but it is also irritating. I can't listen to it too often. I wondered why I found it irritating and when my niece, who is a musicologist, looked at the score she found exactly the same phrase is repeated 18 times. That is not typical of classical music. Normally there is an evolution of the theme."

There was no questioning Ravel's genius but every creative work reflected the personality of its author, Dr Cybulska said. "This is what a genius can do when afflicted."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments