Most of us, from time to time, hear, taste or smell something which, through association, triggers memories of a past experience. Such a thing happened to me a few evenings ago when, zapping through the TV channels, I stumbled upon a performance of Ravel’s Bolero at the Proms.
When I was a small child I had no fear of spiders, cockroaches, wasps, mice or even the occasional rat. But there was one thing that would cause me to leave the house at a speed Linford Christie would have envied, and that was the sound of this particular piece of music, popular with wireless audiences at the time.
It began very quietly, almost in a whisper, its presence sensed rather than heard as it ushered in a spiky, agitated, mechanical rhythm pattern played on a snare drum. This two bar rhythmic figure was repeated and repeated and repeated ….. endlessly ….. throughout the entire piece, very gradually but deliberately increasing in volume as it progressed. With each relentless repetition ratcheting up the tension, the music became more menacing, threatening and sinister.
Above this staccato rhythm emerged a haunting, hypnotic melody which shared more than a passing resemblance with the music of a Moroccan snake charmer. In contrast to the accompanying figure, the melody comprised long, smooth phrases, almost vocal in their expressiveness. This, too, was repeated again and again, each time in a different orchestral colour. In partnership with the accompaniment the repetitions of this exotic melody increased dramatically in volume, culminating in a brash, chaotic and discordant climax.
Of course, it was only in later years that this description of the work fell into place. In those early childhood days just a few bars of the encroaching monster sent me scurrying either to my grandmother’s house next door, or to my father’s greenhouse at the bottom of the garden. There I would stay until I was sure the danger had passed.
Fifteen years on, as a music student at university, I had a much closer encounter with the work. It was then I learned to appreciate the sheer mastery of Ravel’s orchestral writing; his use of a vast palette of instrumental colours and timbres, including several instruments not commonly found in the orchestra of the period; his careful, selective use of those colours both in isolation and in various combinations; his creation of contrasting sound textures. It was an experience not dissimilar to enjoying the brush strokes of a great master. I came not only to accept the work but to marvel at what could be achieved with such limited musical material – a rhythmic figure and a snake charmer’s melody. This man, Ravel, was a genius!
In 1984, at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean performed the most perfect ice dance of all time to the music of Ravel’s Bolero. That same piece of music that had terrified me in childhood and fascinated me as a student was now given yet a further dimension through the beauty, elegance and passion of the dancers’ movements. Their dancing communicated a layer of meaning words cannot convey. It found the soul of the music.
My journey with Bolero was complete.
Several concert performances of Bolero are avaiable on YouTube as well as the Torvill and Dean interpretation.