Year of Wonder – April

In Year of Wonder, Clemency Burton-Hill provides descriptions of 366 pieces of music, one for each day of the year. I made a New Year's resolution to listen to every piece in the book, and I have not yet missed a day. What an adventure!

I have already posted playlists for
January, February, and March on this blog, and here's my playlist for April.

Spotify Playlist for APRIL of the Year of Wonder

Here's a few of the book's highlights from March.

Concerto in G major
Performed by Helene Grimaud, piano, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting

Performed by David Robert Coleman conducting the Berlin Philharmonic

Quartet in C major, Adagio
Performed by the Camerata Quartet

Maruice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz

World War I represented a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”

In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed
La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of
La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.

Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz
The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6

8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).


As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

Steven Osborne, piano

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.