Maurice Ravel: Bolero

The comedian, Rich Hall, in his book of made-up words, Sniglets coined the term “Deja Video” for that uncanny feeling you have when you turn on a show that you’ve only watched once before and it turns out to be the same episode. Today, I have come up with a term like that for classical radio stations called “Deja Bolero.”

About 10 years ago, The Washington Post ran an article about how the local classical stations have “dumbed down” their play lists to be less experimental and, hence, less challenging to the listener. I think one of the station managers said something like, “who wants to be stuck in Beltway traffic with Stockhausen?” No argument there. Stations programmers have to fill over 100 hours a week, fifty two weeks a year, so there must be repetitions. And they have to hold their audience. But there must exist some kind of happy medium.

By now, Bolero has been etched into the neural pathways of almost every living being, and perhaps that is why you never get tired of it. It is like the air we breathe, and I’m sure I had heard it about a hundred times before learning its name. For a long time, oddly enough, I thought it was called Victory At Sea and here’s why.

My mother was 40 when I was born. After I turned five, she started taking swim lessons. Then she went on to get her Water Safety Instructor certificate, taught life saving and swim lessons, finally becoming an expert in teaching children to swim. She got a job at the YMCA teaching all those plus aerobics and was a life guard to boot.

She worked every day at the Y and every day after work, my father would drive me there for swim team practice. (All of us Nemes’ swam competitively.) On Fridays, we stayed for family swim, which she guarded, and there I’d meet my cousins and play water football for hours.

One of the perks of being the life guard’s son was that you got to dress and shower in the guards’ office. This was a cool room because it had lots of swimming paraphernalia, magazines, and a stereo for playing relaxing music during adult swim. Many of the albums consisted of popular disks like the soundtrack to The South Pacific and early 60s Hawaiian kitsch like Quiet Village which had a fiery track I loved called “Hawaiian War Chant.”

One evening after family swim, Mom let us stay to swim and she put on one record that really caught my attention. The track in question started out with snare drums and percussion imitating the sound of Morse code. It then launched into an almost-hypnotic section that built to a huge climax. The album turned out to be the sound track from Victory at Sea.

Looking back now I see this as a work of kitsch of epic proportions. Imagine a dance of seduction somehow turned into a militaristic war hymn. What was the subtext? Love is war?  War is sexy?  Sex is war?

To act like I was outraged at the time is a conceit of hindsight. As an adolescent, I thought it was dead good. Later as I got started listening to more and more serious music I found that many classical themes had been pirated left and right by popular composers. For example, Tchaikowski’s Piano Concerto Number 1 was warped into “Tonight We Love.” If classical musicians like Copland and Bartok can use popular themes in their music, why can’t the reverse hold true? Of course there are limits: Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “All by Myself” which perverts a beautiful melody from one of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos.

If the play Amadeus had even a shred of truth in it, Mozart didn’t object to his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, using melodies in Die Zauberflote in a spoof of his opera, so why should I object to cross-overs from classical to pop? Cross-overs could also be cross-fertilizations that end up sprouting into new interests and ideas. So here’s a toast to Ravel’s Victory at Sea, er Bolero and please pass the bullets.

Post Script: Recently, I heard this podcast on, which looks into the the repetitive nature of the piece, and suggests it might be because Ravel had what some researchers have suggested was Alzheimers.

Listen to “Unraveling Bolero” on Radiolab



About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Maurice Ravel: Bolero

  1. Gallivanta says:

    I am so happy to learn the term ‘deja video’; happens so often! I am very taken with the story of your mother. It is inspirational. Fascinating podcast on Radiolab; intriguing, scary, tremendously sad. Thanks for the link.


  2. Misirlou says:

    One of my dance instructors told me that Bolero was written in a fit of pique because Ravel thought nobody was really listening to his music. He (according to my dance instructor) wrote this repetetive (hypnotic?) tune — just to bore his undeserving public.


  3. Misirlou says:

    The radio program is fantastic btw.


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