Sunday, January 10, 2010


As I sit here listening to Ravel’s Bolero ( I am reminded of underlying themes. If we are not listening carefully they run beneath our conscious awareness. I read once that Maurice Ravel the composer of this powerful piece of music did not look kindly on this composition of his. I got the impression that he was disdainful of it, as if he thought it rather pedestrian, not up to his usual standards. I would like to strenuously object to that assessment. From what I have seen it appears to me not only a crowd pleaser but also a performer pleaser. I saw the New York Philharmonic performing this piece on PBS recently and it was clear they were enjoying the hell of playing it. Sometimes I think composers, or perhaps it is more accurate to say artists in general do not give the general audience much consideration, much credit for discerning good art. Do I need to be a classical music aficionado to like a piece of music, a painting, a poem? Does the fact that I, ignoramus that I am in the ways of musical composition, like something mean that the composer has missed his mark? Am I not his mark in the first place? That’s called hubris.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my original theme which was well… themes.

If you are not familiar with this piece please listen to it via the link above. Even if you are familiar with it give it another listen and you will hear it. Notice the violins plucking the theme that runs through the entire piece, it maintains the rhythm. On top of it runs the melody. It starts ever so slowly, building little by little, to a very loud and emphatic ending. Call me pedestrian but I love this piece. This is manner of composition, an underlying simple theme playing continuously through the piece while the melody and harmony rise and fall, telling the composers story that is used frequently (listen also to second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony). For the record listen at the end for the audience response. Clearly they have no taste in music because it seems that they liked it too.

Does this not model our human existence? The archetypes of Carl Jung, the basic structures that run through our psyches and represented (unconsciously) in our art, our movies, our mythologies, our literature, and yes (and clearly) our music, these are the underlying themes of human existence. They set the structure, the beat, the rhythm, the tone of our lives. It is unfortunate that mostly all we ever hear is the melody of life and to be sure there are many of us who miss even that. But the melody is generally what is front and center. The sandlot baseball games of childhood, school, college, daily stresses of raising children, of going to work, of dealing with sick parents, the pain of physical and psychological illness and the fear of death. These are the melodies of human existence. They ebb and flow, they rise and fall from day to day. These are the events that hold our attention and place us in danger of missing the underlying themes.

What’s the point of this? I don’t really know, it is just something that dawned on me this morning. A reminder perhaps to remain cognizant of the foundations, to not get lost in only the enjoyment of the melody but also to pay attention to that on which the melody stands.


  1. So beautifully written jss.
    Word for word... You have such a gift.

    Ravel's Bolero is a really old favourite of mine.
    I will never forget seeing the Royal London Philharmonic perform it at The Albert Hall when I was younger. The rumbling foundations shook me and excited me.

    It's a technically brilliant piece but Ravel, like any creator of anything, couldn't recognise the genius or beauty in his work.

    Glad you shared your thought.


  2. Hi WS - thanks for the kind words. That concert must have been something. I have not yet had the experience of a classical concert in a large concert hall although it is very much on my agenda. It must be an awesome experience.