"Only connect."

Bolero and the Aged R.


There must be a term for the sort of music that builds and crescendos, but I don’t know it. I know only that I have a fondness for it, for pieces such as Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major and Marin Marais’s Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève. Even – though you may gasp – Mason Williams’s Classical Gas is fun. Such compositions are, to me, a quiet sunset, just a faint pink in the sky, which fades gently: refined, self-contained.

But I do not like Bolero. Ravel’s composition continues enjoying popularity, apparently, and it is often performed; but the first few notes play, and I shrink. It sounds cheap and obvious, a strutting ego, dressed in red, talking too loudly. Like hearing someone I hardly know share “too much information,” I feel a little embarrassed and wait uneasily for the moment to pass.

Characteristically generous, PBS gave us a wonderful broadcast on New Year’s Eve, great music to say goodbye – and right away hello – as the years passed in a revolving door of supposed ending and beginning anew. Yo Yo Ma, the featured musician, would join the New York Philharmonic, so I hadn’t bothered to read the program; I watched because of Yo Yo Ma. They began with something by Ravel, and a Piazzola, which were good. The stunning performance was of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul, a composer and piece unknown to me, featuring the cello. It wasn’t quite my sort of music, but Ma’s complete immersion in his playing of it was enthralling. He appeared transported, almost ecstatic! I listened on because of him and was greatly rewarded, so moved. And then came Bolero.

I take care of an Aged Relative who has both brain damage and dementia. Recent events disappear from her memory quickly, but old memories can be vivid. Childhood memories are keenest of all, and she had a happy youth, leading to conversations that give her great pleasure. Anything that prompts a pleasant memory is a valuable key, to keep track of and use again. Luckily for me, she enjoys classical music and the arts, and I often include programs about them in our evenings. The music of her youth puts her in the happiest mood. She sings along and even dances to Big Band stuff, things I never witnessed her doing before. When really inspired, she sometimes asks me to dance with her. Neither of our younger selves would ever have imagined this, but we hold hands and swing, carefully, for a few moments, until she needs to sit again and just listen.

So the orchestra struck up Bolero, and my shrinking away from it had just begun, when I heard the Aged R. exclaim, “Oh! Bolero!” I looked over at her, and her face was glowing. “You like Bolero?” “Oh, yes!” she gasped, gazing at the screen, rapt in anticipation, as the music began its strut. Of course, I couldn’t turn it off or leave the room. I was caught.

Susan Scheid quoted recently from John Ashbery’s “The Skaters”: “The balloons/Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it.” ( It has been a goal of mine to drift through life this way, thoughtfully – possibly commenting – but without making pronouncements. I try to keep in mind Henry James in “The Art of Fiction”: “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.” One of the reasons why many refer to James as “The Master” is that a statement like this one, made by him in reference to writing fiction, is so applicable to the art of living, as well. So, while I may not like Bolero, I cannot fault the taste of the Aged R. With her, more than with anyone else, I accept her preferences as part of her world, as she sees it or wishes it to be; my role is supporting, encouraging her in holding on to as much of it as she can. The performance ended as the evening did, exuberantly. The Aged R. had been given another chance to enjoy Bolero, perhaps with glimpses into previous times from long ago, perhaps simply with the sense of happiness that they had left in her. In that evening of our life, it was what James might call her subject; exuberance was what she made of it. My subject was providing the support for her enjoyment of Bolero. I can only hope that she never asks me to dance to it.


10 thoughts on “Bolero and the Aged R.

  1. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to think about Bolero in the past few days specifically, and the effect of repetition in music generally. I think it’s awful, on the one hand, that Bolero is Ravel’s most famous work, yet on the other hand, I recognize the seduction of repetition, and what an aid it is to memory. Your story here is a cautionary tale on many fronts, and if Bolero gave the gift of music–and memory–to your aged R., it can only be cause for celebration, as you do here.

    • Sue, it’s odd, how many prompts are in the air lately for thinking of Bolero! The Solitary Walker quoted Emily Dickinson in a recent post, and her words made me think of it again – or, rather, of my opinion about it!

      How dreary to be somebody!
      How public, like a frog
      To tell your name the livelong day
      To an admiring bog!

      Your statement of “It so happens…” is mysterious and intriguing! I do hope that a post on “the effect of repetition in music” is in the works – that I would like to read!

  2. That ‘AXIS Duet’ video is great. And this is a beautiful story.

    I can’t listen to ‘Bolero’ because I’m highly susceptible to stuck tune syndrome, and besides, I agree with your description of it. But strangely enough, I can listen to Reich and Glass and have never gotten one of their lines stuck in my head.

    I really like your observation via James. The painter de Kooning made the same (or similar) observation in a very down to earth way. He said that painters do not have particularly bright ideas (bowl of fruit, nude figure, landscape, etc); it’s all in how they handle the subject. I like how you have expanded this into the wider context of everyday living. And I’m pretty sure that it’s never cool to belittle anyone for their tastes in art.

    • Mark, I always appreciate your response to dance videos, and in general, your understanding of things from an artist’s viewpoint. Though I love paintings, I hadn’t thought about them in just this way before. But your comment adds to my contemplation of how the creative impulse flows through everyone and simply comes out in different ways. Whether those ways seem bigger or smaller, for me, they all represent artistic effort, and, borrowing your word, should never be belittled. A nicely laid table can be as lovely as a grand work.

  3. I enjoyed your recounting of Bolero on your relative – I could see her listen intently. I am neutral on Bolero. I listen to music according to my mood of the moment, which can go from West African music to Armenian music via tango and mostly classical – I was just listening to some Borodin. Some people listen to music to remember, I listen to get away from my world (the locality and the difficulties – my husband has Alzheimer and music helps me, more than him.)

  4. Vagabonde, your response is unexpected, and this reminds me that I tend to lapse into thinking that I am isolated in my situation. It is thought that my Aged R. may have entered Alzheimer’s, but her primary diagnosis is the brain damage, which makes the other – dementia, or wherever she is – not progress in the usual way. I was listening this morning to an interview with Buddhist monk/author/teacher Jack Kornfield. He happened to mention care-giving of Alzheimer’s patients in an example of learning not to take circumstances personally – my situation exactly. He spoke of thinking, instead of “I am alone in this,” “How many other people in the world are going through the same thing today? We are doing this together.” It doesn’t just address the sense of isolation – it develops compassion. I had already seen your comment, and it came immediately to mind. Today, because you wrote, I can remember you, and other people unknown to me, and think, I am not alone in this. We are doing this together. Thank you so much for this gift!

    • I came back and saw your reply. I did not understand one of your sentences – about learning not to take circumstances personally – you do or you don’t? Sorry, English is my 3rd language and sometimes I don’t get the meaning immediately. When I moved to San Francisco from Paris I joined a Buddhist association there. I don’t go to meetings anymore but I have a large collection of Buddhist books (including some by Jack Kornfield.) When I get too upset or frustrated, reading passages from these books, mostly those from the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh helps me to place my problems in some peaceful perspective. I also subscribed to the Alzheimer Reading Room – they send emails about memory issues – it’s free. I don’t read all of them but some are helpful. Here is the site: Thanks for replying to me.

      • Vagabonde, your question is a good one and addresses the point exactly. I try not to take circumstances personally. It’s a challenge, and I’m not always successful, but it is my continuing goal. When I’m able to remove the feeling of “this is happening to me,” and realize that it’s not personal, it’s just happening, then we are best able to move through the hard moments. Kornfield’s reminder about compassionate practice is so helpful: remembering that many other people are in the same situation at the same time, that we are all doing it together. Thank you so much for the link! All the best — Elizabeth

  5. Can I have missed this all these months? Well, I love Bolero too, though I share Sue’s view that it is about as representative of Ravel as Pomp and Circumstance One is of Elgar and Finlandia of Sibelius. It was a clever experiment, a product of the style mecanique which was all the rage in Paris after Honegger’s Pacific 231 premiered in the mid 1920s. I think it works best taken slowly, with really virtuoso, singing soloists – as I heard it in a Prom conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. And let’s not forget it was a ballet – watch a Spanish flamenco troupe dance to it on YouTube in last year’s superb Spanish Prom.

    Interesting that the repetition affected your aged R. How I wish we saw more of you here.

    • David, your comment here arrives at exactly the right time to help me with a conundrum! I’m pleased to be able to report that I have followed your suggestion and, with an open mind, watched the dance performance on YouTube – the results of which I talk about in a new post. Thank you so much for your kind remarks! — Elizabeth

I welcome your response - what are your thoughts about this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s