Parting Glances: Bavel's Rolero Redux

By Charles Alexander
Originally printed 7/24/2014 (Issue 2230 - Between The Lines News)

At my age, I fidget after five minutes exposure to certain quote/unquote cultural happenings. Harpsichord recitals. Accordion extravaganzas. Art song evenings. "Gilligan's Island" reruns. Lower body piercing demos. Televised Irish flaming feet of anything dancing.

I squirm through Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (w/wo Disney cutesy satyrs), Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (w/wo cannons), Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" (w/wo Adam Lambert), Maurice Ravel's Bolero (w/wo a stop watch).

Let me jiggle the conductor's baton a little. I'll give Bolero another try when my testosterone level drops below zero, and, why not? Gay composer Maurice Ravel said that his popular musical warhorse has a "musico-sexual element" (and a good beat for a pacemaker).

When Bolero debuted in 1928, a blue-haired member of the audience stood up, shouted "Help the madman! Help the madman!" Quipped Maurice, "Madam really understands my music."

Ravel joked that Bolero was his masterpiece. "Too bad there's no music in it," he confessed. "It has two tunes." He called the contrapuntal combo too erotic to be played on Sundays and boasted its climax was like "cutting off your head abruptly. Just the ticket for movies!"

Paramount Studios paid Ravel big American bucks for screen rights, only to discover Bolero isn't an opera, has no plot, has no story line, and depending upon who conducted its score, is just 13 to 16 minutes long until orgasm.

Paramount stroked it into a B- movie that included World's Fair burlesque diva Sally Rand - looking like an ostrich in heat - doing a fan dance.

Fortunately, Ravel was in French Morocco at the time doing his own thing at Hollywood's expense. From his hotel balcony he was eyeing stevedores and sailors, amazed to hear one actually whistling the Bolero music. No doubt a come on.

When Ravel traveled, he haunted out-of-the-way streets, chain smoking as he searched for sailor bars. (In France he kept his taste for fruits-de-mer to himself.) He was straight-laced among compatriots, though he once did ballerina drag for school chums. He was also vain and obstinate, causing a scandal by refusing a coveted Legion d'Honneur in 1920.

He toured America for four months in 1928, with a piano soloist appearance at the Detroit Institute of Arts, sponsored by Pro Musica Society. His tour fee was $10,000 (about $100,000 now), a small sum even back then.

He brought along 22 pairs of pajamas, dozens of bright vests, ties, gloves, spats and monogrammed handkerchiefs, refusing to perform without the latter. A yellow evening coat "stopped traffic" wherever he sashayed in Detroit's cultural center. He was very much a walking rainbow ahead of his time.

His masterpiece? I'll take his Daphnis et Chloe ballet, or his Concerto for Left Hand. (I like the weekday exercise implications.) A bientot! Soyez-sage. Mais pas trop straight.
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