Dr. Tegart and Casey discuss Ravel, his life, and how his most popular piece ended up being his least favorite.

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Casey Bozell : 0:09

Today on keep classical weird Dr. Sophia Tegart and I discuss Maurice Ravel’s most well known piece Bolero, Ravel, as it turns out, was not a fan.Sophia Tegart : 0:20

At the premiere. Someone like booed the piece and said That’s rubbish or something. And apparently, this is hearsay, but apparently Ravel said that person gets it.Casey Bozell : 0:48

Welcome friends to set to keep classical weird. I am your host Casey Bozell, and today we are discussing the orchestral piece known as the world’s longest crescendo: Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. It’s a strange notion to find a composer who ended up despising his best known work. So I wanted to dive in a little deeper to find out more about Ravel in general. Maurice Ravel was a French composer who lived from 1875 to 1937. History has categorized him along with Claude Debussy as one of the two most prominent composers of the impressionist period. Although was I learned from Dr. Tegart, he wasn’t a huge fan of that title.Sophia Tegart : 1:31

I don’t really know why he wasn’t a fan of being called impressionist. But I find it interesting because there there’s a couple times when he talks about French music and how it’s like painting. So there’s a – I remember he was trying to talk about some German composers, and how their music is so big and complex and he said, you know, it’s not that French music is less than German music right now. It’s just that we work on a smaller canvas. But each brush stroke is incredibly important. So even though he himself used painting as an analogy, he, for some reason, did not like being lumped in thatCasey Bozell : 2:22

Impressionism like many other artistic movements began with visual art. It’s characterized by vivid colors, thin brushstrokes, and emphasis on the greater idea of the painting subjects rather than the finer details. Think of works by Degas or Monet as examples. Ravel’s music arguably had similar concepts, great colors created by vivid orchestration, and little complicated gestures that were there to service the big picture rather than stand out as a solo. But really, it’s not that direct of a comparison.Sophia Tegart : 2:56

Some of the terms that we apply to music Often are associated with a another art form. So Eric Satie, his later works were often combined with surrealism, Debussy, Ravel, obviously Impressionism, but there’s no real way to really show how art and music are the same in those terms. So whereas Impressionism for painting might have a specific approach to it, you can’t really just, you know, throw or brush some notes up on a page and ask a musician to play those but not full hearted, you know, it’s there’s, there’s some disconnect between the concept of Impressionism for painting versus the concept of Impressionism for music that the same problem occurs with minimalism. It’s actually all the isms in the 20th Century. Any kind of ism when you try and equate it with music and art, it often does not connect very well.Casey Bozell : 4:07

In this realm of what Ravel might consider mis categorization. He has a vast body of work. He’s officially credited with 85 works, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount for a lifelong composer. But he had a practice of writing pieces for piano and later orchestrating them to be played in symphonies and he did this many times. He also wrote chamber music, piano concertos, ballet music, opera and song cycles. But the thing that people seem to know him best for is Bolero, Ravel composed Bolero in 1928. And when you stand it up against the rest of his compositions or any other impressionist piece in general, it’s absolutely unique. The piece starts with a rhythm powered by the snare drum that doesn’t deviate for the entirety of the piece. Over that he lays a flute melody. The flute then joins the rhythm and the clarinet plays the same melody Then the bassoon and so on and so on until every single player and every section that has started out at a very quiet volume gradually builds and gets louder and louder and 15 to 17 minutes later, you have a final statement of that same melody with a lot of decibels behind it. And that’s it. It can be mapped up fairly easy by any first year music major. So, why did this catch on? It’s a famous piece, even though compositionally there’s not much to it. So Ravel writes it. He’s like, whatever. And audiences to this day, eat it up. What is it about Bolero that that people love so much.Sophia Tegart : 5:51

I’ve been thinking about this and I think it’s just that everyone loves a good build up of excitement and anticipation. And they love when it finally goes nuts at the end, right? So it’s 17 minutes of just constantly building and with each new repetition of the melody, you almost think, Okay, this next one’s got to be like, the peak, right? And then it just keeps building and building and it just builds the suspense and, and really I think people have a nice reaction to it nice is probably not the correct term they have a they have a physical reaction to it, you know, an emotional reaction. I think it’s the build up they love – they love a good build up.Casey Bozell : 6:45

That’s true. And it’s such a I mean, when I’ve played it an orchestra that’s like often a closer Yeah, because you don’t follow Bolero with anything because of how explosive it is at the end. Four years after the premiere of Bolero, Ravel was in a taxi accident that caused him to take a nasty blow to the head. After this, he started acting differently. He had to stop composing eventually suffered pain and ended up dying after surgical treatment by his neurologist. One can obviously attribute his cognitive decline to the accident. But close friends of his started to comment on his general absent mindedness in 1927, a full five years before the accident happened. In the late 80s. An article was published in a prominent medical journal, suggesting that the accident actually sped up the process of a neurological condition that already existed. Some have suggested that Ravel actually had Alzheimer’s disease, and even speculated so far to connect the repetitiveness of Bolero with the fact that some people with Alzheimer’s find repetitive patterns comforting. So the question still kind of lingers in the musical community. Was Bolero a very early sign of a neurological condition?Sophia Tegart : 8:05

I find these arguments that I’m sure there was something going on, you know, like, neurologically speaking. I don’t know what it was, when I hear these diagnoses. I’m like, Oh, that’s so cool. That’s totally what happened. And then you think about it. Or it could have just been a musical exercise.Casey Bozell : 8:25

Right.Sophia Tegart : 8:26

And he was like, I don’t want to think of a second melody. So I’m just gonna do this one over.Casey Bozell : 8:33

So that’s, that’s, are you doing that medical thing where it’s like, when you think about what it is look for, look for horses, not zebras.Sophia Tegart : 8:41

I guess part of the reason is, is um, I read this quote, where he was telling – he didn’t teach a lot of students, but he did teach Ralph Vaughn Williams right. And apparently, he told Vaughn Williams that you should strive for Complex music but not complicated music. So for me, Bolero’s the epitome of that explanation, right, it’s complex in the harmonies and how he moves and uses the colors and the overtones and, and builds the crescendos and the orchestration. I mean, that’s so complex, but it’s not complicated. Casey Bozell : 9:23

Right.Sophia Tegart : 9:24

So then you then you gotta wonder, maybe he was totally with it when he wrote Bolero. But, but maybe he wasn’t. I do find Bolero to be so outside of everything that he did. You got to look at it and think, you know, maybe this is a sign of something.Casey Bozell : 9:46

Right when you look at like any, especially other grand symphonic works like – Is it La Valse? or la petite? Oh, is it La Valse?Sophia Tegart : 9:58

La Valse, yeah.Casey Bozell : 10:00

It’s so good. It’s not Bolero. Sophia Tegart : 10:03

I know. Casey Bozell : 10:03

Like, it’s, it’s so different. Um, and also when I think about like his violin Sonata, it’s three movements that are complete. Three completely different compositional takes. Um, so, I guess really the question is, was he What? Did he have Alzheimer’s? Or was he just like a really good composer.Sophia Tegart : 10:27

I like to think he was just a really good composer. And, and maybe towards, you know, the later years in his life. He wasn’t so concerned about how people perceived him or you know, obviously because if you go to your premiere of your piece and someone calls it rubbish and you’re like that person, gets it – that presents, you know, people who can do that tend to be completely at ease with themselves. And not worried about, you know, perception or reputation, he might have just gotten to a point where he just didn’t care anymore. Not in a bad way, butCasey Bozell : 11:13

in like a liberating way. You mean Yeah. Sophia Tegart : 11:17

You’re so used to composers being so concerned about, you know, how the audience can react and, and, you know, how is this going to be received in academia or by the audience or the public or whatever. And apparently Ravel didn’t care too much and he just wrote it as this repetitive, huge crescendo with no interest of expanding the music and in fact, he he actually once said that it was a long crescendo with no music.Casey Bozell : 11:52

There’s one more conversational tidbit I’d like to sneak in here. And that’s a tangent, that Dr. Tegart and I went on when we discussed actually Playing Bolero. We’re both experienced orchestral players. She’s a flutist I’m a violinist. And we realized that even though this piece is compositionally simple, you can have a drastically different experience of playing it depending on where you’re sitting in the orchestra.Sophia Tegart : 12:17

I don’t know how it is with strings, but I feel like in the wind section, everyone’s freaking out trying to play this piece because every – well obviously it starts with flute so of course, it’s like the greatest piece ever. But, you know, I keep hearing about how the bassoon solos hard the trombone Solo is nuts. You know, everyone has – The flute part is actually an excerpt for auditions. You know, this piece has a, it’s challenging for everyone in the wind section, not to mention the fact that the harmonies are so crazy to fit together at times that everyone’s freaking out about pitch Because you put so much emotional energy and focus into performing that piece in particular and keeping your focus to keep the tempo and to keep everything even and not go too soon. I mean, it’s, it’s not just a compositional exercise. It’s a focus exercise. It’s a tone and technique exercise. I mean, it’s just, it’s challenging.Casey Bozell : 13:27

That’s – you and I have completely different experiences of this piece. Sophia Tegart : 13:31

Yeah. Casey Bozell : 13:32

Because when I think about the times that I’ve played Bolero, it’s not that hard. It’s not that hard for us. We’re always playing together. I like it because we have like, at some points, like, huge amounts of divisi. So we get to like, you know, you’re playing the same notes as everybody around you, and then you kind of split up a little bit and then you split up more. And so I like the build of that. But there’s no complicated like – we’re all playing this same rhythm we all move at the same time. We’re just playing different notes. And also like the first things we do are like, like the guitar. So string players like yeah, totally lean back and enjoy. So that’s different – I mean, I knew that we had a different experience than say the snare drum player. Which is so crucial and sat at that seems so exhausting. Um, but yeah, I didn’t think about how the wind players are under there you go through a lot in that piece.Sophia Tegart : 14:34

So I’ve played all three parts for Bolero and and the principal flute part is tricky because you start it off and it’s just this simple melody. And yet you have to have these long lyrical lines and it’s it’s, you know, a Bolero sounds easy when it’s played perfect and it sounds really bad when you when it’s played okay, you know what? Ah, and then and then if you’re on the other two parts for flute at least I mean, you’re on the piccolo parts. And there’s a spot where the two Piccolos come in and one is in G major and one is an E major, and we’re like a fourth or fifth apart. And it sounds weird. And you get done playing and usually the piccolos if they haven’t played it before, they will look at each other and say “Was that right?” And it wasxCasey Bozell : 15:29

and that’s our show for today. Thank you to Dr. Tegart at Washington State University for your consistently delightful and enlightening conversations. Hear that theme music? It’s composed by Thomas barber who you can check out at thomasbarber.com Web development support is provided by Tina at citybeautifuldesign.com. Keep classical weird is created and edited by me Casey Bozell, if you’d like to help the podcast grow check out patreon.com/keepclassicalweird and to scribed there for bonus content from Set one. All pledges made between now and July 5th will go straight to campaign zero. I’ve raised $85 so far, so let’s keep it rolling. Thanks for listening everyone. Stay safe and stay weird.