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Ravel's last music bears the mark of his deteriorating brain.
22 January 2002
Brain disease influenced Ravel's last compositions including his Boléro,
say researchers. Orchestral timbres came to dominate his late music at the
expense of melodic complexity because the left half of his brain
deteriorated, they suggest1. Timbre is mainly the province of the brain's
French composer Maurice Ravel suffered from a mysterious progressive
dementia from about 1927 when he was 52 years old. He gradually lost the
ability to speak, write and play the piano. He composed his last work in
1932, and gave his last performance in 1933. He died in December 1937.
Neurologists have puzzled over his illness ever since. Many have suggested
Alzheimer's disease. But François Boller, of the Paul Broca Research
Centre in Paris, believes the symptoms began too young, and that too much
of Ravel's memory, self-awareness and social skills were preserved for
this diagnosis to be correct.
Ravel probably suffered from two conditions, Boller proposes. One,
progressive primary aphasia, erodes the brain's language centres. The
other, corticobasal degeneration, robs patients of movement control.
Ravel became trapped in his body, says Boller: "He didn't lose the ability
to compose music, he lost the ability to express it."
The composer's failings, particularly his loss of language, were
predominantly in faculties dealt with by the left half of the brain.
Musical abilities are spread throughout the brain; different areas deal
with pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm.
Boller and his colleagues believe that two of Ravel's last pieces show the
early effects of the weakening left hemisphere, with the timbre-processing
right brain coming to the fore. The works are Boléro written in 1928, and
his 1930 piano concerto for the left hand.
Boléro contains only two themes, each repeated eight times. But it has 30
superimposed lines, and 25 different combinations of sounds. Ravel himself
described it as "an orchestral fabric without music".
Likewise the concerto for the left hand features shorter phrases than
Ravel's previous works, and subsumes the soloist into the orchestra more
than his other piano concerto. Mathematical analyses also indicate that
this work differs from the rest of Ravel's compositions.
"It's a captivating hypothesis, and in keeping with what we know," says
Alzheimer's researcher Giovanni Frisoni of the National Centre for
Research and Care of Alzheimer's Disease in Brescia, Italy. But it will
probably be impossible, he warns, to ever know for sure what drove Ravel
to write the way he did.
"Boléro occupies a funny place in Ravel's oeuvre," agrees Deborah Mawer, a
music researcher at Lancaster University, UK. But it's hard to distinguish
between his musical development and his gradually altering mental state,
she cautions. Ravel became interested in mechanization and modern
machinery at the end of his life, which could account for the
repetitiveness of the piece.
a.. Amaducci, L., Grassi, E. & Boller, F. Maurice Ravel and
right-hemisphere musical creativity: influence of disease on his last
musical works?. European Journal of Neurology, 9, 75 - 82, (2002).
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