The machine comes crashing down

Despite Ravel’s objections, Boléro has created more discussion than any other of his works. It is a fascinating piece, his most-played composition, and arguably an influence on many styles of music that were to come later in the 20th century.

In Ravel’s words: ‘It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction… There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are altogether impersonal – folk tunes of the usual Spanish Arabian kind.’

The genius of it, of course, lies in its very simplicity. A two-bar motto rhythm played by the side drum is repeated 168 times; it represents something constant, almost like a machine. Over the top, a long sinuous melody in two parts is presented by a number of different solo instruments from the orchestra, each one taking on its own character and harmonisation.

The contrast between the two elements, the static rhythm of the drum and the fluid melody, is bewitching; it entrances the listener. Then, over the course of 15 minutes, Ravel uses his incredible artistry of orchestration, to change the colours and timbres, and create one long crescendo. Like ‘Daphnis and Chloé’, and ‘La Valse’, it represents the same journey of Creation – Apotheosis – Destruction. In the end, the machine comes crashing down, and the whole orchestra grinds to a halt. The power of the final chords ringing in the audience’s ears comes from the release from repetition. Over 15 minutes, we have heard the same two-bar rhythm, ingrained into our ears, and suddenly it is wiped out. Of course, this is one of the basic tenets of what was to become the movement called ‘minimalism;’ the way in which humans react to reparative rhythms in an almost instincitive and natural way, and the feeling of disillusionment when this is followed by silence.


Rise to the Rhythm

Saturday, September 21

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