Ravel, Bolero (1928)

At the time Maurice Ravel composed Boléro he was 53 years old and suffering from the early stages of FTD (frontotemporal dementia). Those afflicted with the disease slowly lose their ability to speak and understand the speech of others. The disease is also marked by compulsive behavior and spurts of creativity.

, which Ravel completed in 1928, might easily be classified as an exercise in compulsive behavior. One might also hear it as a product of Ravel's disease. The entire piece is built on a single melody divided into two phrases repeated nine times. A drum beat based on a Spanish bolero begins the piece and is then repeated over and over until the end. Here’s how Ravel described the piece.

“… What I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music‘ — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts and there is practically no invention save the plan and manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal ... folk-tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity … I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave it.”

Boléro was Ravel’s last great work. As his disease worsened, he was unable to compose music, and he died in 1937, nine days after undergoing experimental brain surgery.

In 2008,
The New York Times published an article about Dr. Anne Adams, a woman who had been trained in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Like Ravel, Dr. Adams suffered from FTD.

In 1994, when Dr. Adams was in the early stages of the disease, she became obsessed with Ravel’s
Boléro. Then, at age 53, she began painting “Unraveling Boléro,” a painting that provided a visual image of Ravel’s music with the height, shape, and color of the images in the painting corresponding to each bar of the music.

Just as Vincent van Gogh was known for forging great paintings from his own mental illness, Maurice Ravel’s
Boléro and Anne Adams’ “Unraveling Boléro” provide a journey into minds afflicted with FTD. Both Ravel and Adams were 53 years old when they began wrestling with Boléro. Consider this an example of illness serving as creativity's muse.

Ravel, Boléro (Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Wiener Philharmonic)

Dr. Anne Adams, "Unraveling Bolero"

Many thanks to the
Radiolab podcast titled "Unraveling Bolero" for introducing me to this story.