Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Dummmm, dee dee da da doo da dum dee-da dum....MAKE IT STOP!

The other day, in speculating that the fair lass who married Aaron is, in fact, a vampire, I also reported that I absolutely loathe Maurice Ravel's Bolero. In comments, Sean expressed surprise, so I should probably attempt to explain why I hate this piece.

Very simply, it boils down to a single reason: Bolero is nothing more than a single melody, repeated in its entirety something like twenty times, each time played by a different instrument or group of instruments and each time getting louder until, at the end, what started as a single pianissimo snare drum and a flute has become the entire orchestra blasting that melody until the paint peels from the concert hall's walls. And admittedly, the orchestration is pretty damned amazing -- Ravel gets some pretty startling sounds out of the standard orchestra, and you should probably hear the thing just once for that reason alone. I got to play it once, and I enjoyed the trumpet parts, when I got to play; but the rest of it was counting measures to the next entrance. And poor Aaron's wife had to play the damned snare drum part, probably the most thankless task in all classical music after being the poor slob who has to play the bass line in Pachelbel's Canon in D.

Cool orchestration, yeah. But it's that damned melody, see -- all Ravel does with it is repeat it. Literally, he does nothing but repeat it. It never develops, it never opens up into other melodic or rhythmic possibilities, it never goes anywhere except louder and somewhere else in the orchestra. And really, it's not even that interesting of a melody in the first place, sounding to me like someone attempting to improvise a melody who isn't confident enough to move beyond the confinesof the scale. (Hum it, if you don't believe me -- the entire melody is almost completely stepwise.)

True, Dimitri Shostakovich uses a very similar device in his Symphony No. 7 (the "Leningrad"), but I like Shosty's melody more, he doesn't call the crescendo-by-repetition device an entire piece, and it makes sense in that work's programmatic context as representing the long, slow march toward Leningrad of the Nazi siege army.

I have the obligatory recording of Bolero on my shelf, since it was coupled with a recording of Ravel's infinitely more-interesting Daphnis et Chloe Suite #2 and La Valse. Once every two years or so, I'll put Bolero in the stereo, thinking that maybe I'll have finally opened up to it, or, failing that, at least it'll be over in fifteen minutes. And never once have I made it past the eight minute mark before hitting "Stop". Lots of people, it seems, listen to Bolero and hear hypnotic sensualism; I listen to it and hear naught but boring repetition. Ears of the beholder, I guess.

No comments: