Portrait of Maurice Ravel
Portrait of Maurice Ravel © Getty  /  Bettmann

Ravel's Bolero: the portrait of a diseased mind?

Some researchers have posited that the neurodegenerative disease that afflicted Maurice Ravel during the last years of his life may have influenced his artistic output and even shaped the musical language used to compose his final works. Is Bolero the portrait of a diseased mind?

Might Maurice Ravel's best-known work, Bolero, be the portrait of a diseased mind? Do its repetitive ostinato, relatively pedestrian melodic line and general linearity reflect a decline in his creative abilities?

This is the hypothesis put forward by researchers Anna Mazzucci and François Boller (European Journal of Neurology, 2002), who attribute it to the first signs of a deterioration in the composer's left hemisphere. Even if musical activity involves a complex network in which different areas of the brain are in constant communication, the right hemisphere is mainly involved in tone, while melody depends on the left hemisphere. In the case of Bolero, the right hemisphere would appear to have become predominant. Moreover, Ravel himself stated ironically about Bolero, which he saw more as an exercise in orchestration, that: "I composed only one masterpiece: Bolero. And, sadly, there is nothing musical in it." 

"I hear my music, but I will never again write it"

Maurice Ravel's neurological disorder is one of the most scrutinised cases in history, but researchers still cannot agree about the nature of the disorder. Was it a stroke following a car accident? Was it Alzheimer's Disease? The first person to write about it was Pierre Allajouine (Aphasie et langage pathologique, 1948), who reports that Maurice Ravel suffered from a progressive neurodegenerative disease that stopped him writing, playing or communicating his music during the last four years of his life, even though he was still able to listen to music and remember his works and his knowledge of musicology.

As Justine Sergent explains in her article _"De la musique au cerveau par l’intermédiaire de Maurice Ravel",_ the first signs of deterioration became apparent in the summer of 1933, when Maurice Ravel accidentally injured a friend on the cheek while skimming stones on water. He realised that he could no longer aim accurately. Once, when he was in the water, and even though he was an excellent swimmer, he seemingly forgot how to swim. He was suffering from apraxia, on top of which he gradually developped alexia and agraphia: he could no longer sign his name or read, and up until the end of that year, he could no longer write, not even his music, and had difficulty performing the simplest everyday motor tasks. In relation to his activity as a composer, he lost the ability to play or sing his music, even though he remembered his works perfectly well. Allajouine told the story of how, when his niece played his works on the piano and added some wrong notes, Ravel, sitting in his armchair, had no trouble pointing them out with a gesture of his hand.

At the end of 1933, the composer wrote to his friend, Valentine Hugo: "I'll never write my Joan of Arc. That opera is there in my head; I can hear it but I'll never write it. It's over; I can no longer write my music." 

As the neurologist Catherine Thomas-Antérion explained, "What we know for certain is that it was a disease that affected the left hemisphere in particular, given the symptoms the composer displayed".

Was Ravel already ill when he wrote Bolero?

Those unconvinced by this theory point out that Bolero was composed in 1928. "Bolero was composed in 1928," explains Catherine Thomas-Antérion. "Today we know that a neurodegenerative disease (unspecified in Ravel's case) begins up to 15 years or so before the first symptoms appear. Anna Mazzucchi and François Boller assumed that the work might be the result of changes in the composer's brain because the disease was already developing." 

Catherine Thomas-Antérion developed this hypothesis in the light of research into various cases of recognised artists who, following a neurodegenerative disease, developed a new form of creativity by changing their style, artistic language or mode of expression."There are a number of cases of painters or writers who, after an accident or a neurological disease, continued to create but in a different style or using a different palette, theme or technique. The extraordinary plasticity of the brain makes it possible to reorganise neural networks after a deterioration. Other circuits can offset the malfunctioning of disease-damaged circuits by liberating other associations, thereby enabling the patient to maintain cerebral activity. Take, for example, the painter _Willem de Kooning_, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 80. At the end of his life, he became hyper-productive as an artist, producing over 250 paintings in a style that was completely different to his pre-illness style. Some specialists consider these paintings among the best of his career."