While my friends’ families owned fairly extensive record collections – the Goldbergs owned dozens of Broadway show albums, for example (it still was the 78rpm era, mind you) – we didn’t have very many records. We probably would not even have had a phonograph, but since phonographs were among the products distributed by Electra Supply Co., we had to have one, a top-of-the-line model, and a few records to go with it. Among them was a performance of Ravel’s Bolero, conducted by Arthur Fiedler. It filled three sides of two twelve-inch records. (On the fourth side was Falla’s Fire Dance.)
I first heard Ravel’s Bolero when I was six. It drove me crazy, almost literally. I was fascinated by it, but it was a tormenting fascination, painful and pleasurable at the same time. I wanted to listen to the Bolero again and again, yet it clapped my brain into an excruciating, inescapable – disagreeable, to say the least. Fortunately for my mental health, the phonograph was considered too complicated a device for me to be allowed to operate it on my own.
Evidently, I was not such an outlier when it came to my reaction to Bolero.
From today’s Wikipedia:
The premiere was acclaimed by a shouting, stamping, cheering audience in the midst of which a woman was heard screaming: “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”). When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly replied: “That lady… she understood.”
When I was seven, I contracted a severe case of measles. I must have been on death’s door – kids occasionally do die of measles – because when my fever was at its worst I was moved to my parents’ room, to my mother’s side of the bed. At night she slept beside me; my father took the chaise lounge. Dr. Rosenberg, usually pretty sanguine, must have conveyed to them that the threat of my measles was dire, otherwise they never would have disrupted the cherished and guarded intimacy of their bedroom life. (My sister and I always had to knock before entering. Often we were turned away and often the door was locked.)
At height of my fever I became delirious. My delirium consisted of hearing in my mind’s ear Ravel’s Bolero, the same agitated melody, again and again, louder and louder, more and more insistent, a torture I could not escape, sending me spiralling down into a clamorous infinity. Accompanying this auditory hallucination was an image, a landscape – not hallucinatory like the music, but a backdrop to it. As Bolero swelled and thundered, three Mexicans on donkeys slowly plodded across a high rickety wooden bridge spanning a deep, steep-cliffed canyon. (I knew they were Mexicans because they wore sombreros and serapes and rode donkeys.)
(This exotic vision was a composite of scenes from cowboy movies and comic books, and from my own secret life as a dashing shooter of bad guys and a rescuer, usually while still on horseback, of pretty girls. This Superman-like transformation was accomplished by buckling on my most precious and talismanic possession: a pair of fringed white leather holsters hanging from a wide white leather belt, in which nested a pair of exquisite long-barreled cap pistols with pearl handles.)
On they plodded, the three Mexicans, hunched over their drooping-headed mounts, never progressing beyond the center of the bridge. Watching how deliberately, stoically, they withstood the surging, maniacal melody, I saw that, unlike the heroism of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, here was a heroism that was within my capabilities. Here was a kind of courage I could call on to defend myself against such terrors of life as Ravel’s Bolero.
I won't inflict Ravel's Bolero on you in its original glory. Here is Benny Goodman's version: