One of my favorite novels about classical music is a funny little book entitled "Ravel," by Jean Échenoz. Although focusing more on the biographical arc of Ravel's life, the novel contains an amateur musicological gem in its description of the Boléro:
"... there's a factory that Ravel currently likes to look at, on the Vésinet road, right after the bridge at Rueil. It gives him ideas. So there it is: he is busy composing something based on the assembly line.
Assembly and repetition: the composition is completed in October after a month of work hampered only by a splendid cold picked up on a trip through Spain, beneath the coconut palms of Malaga. He knows perfectly well what he has made: there's no form, strictly speaking, no development or modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short it's a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound. Phrase run into the ground, thing without hope or promise: there he says, is at least one piece Sunday orchestras won't have the cheek to put on their programs. But none of that's important: the thing was only made to be danced. The choreography, the lighting, the scenery will be what carry off the tedious repetitions of that phrase…
Well, things don't go at all as planned. The first time it's danced, it's somewhat disconcerting but it works. Later on in the concert hall, however, is when it works terrifically. It works extraordinarily. This object without hope enjoys a triumph that stuns everyone, beginning with its creator. True, when an old lady in the audience complains loudly at the end of one of the first performances that he's a madman, Ravel nods: There's one of them at least who understands, he says, just to his brother. Eventually, this success will trouble him. That such a pessimistic project would meet with popular acclaim that is soon so universal and long-lasting that the piece becomes one of the world's warhorses -- well it's enough to make one wonder but -- above all -- to go straight to the point. To those bold enough to ask him what he considers his masterpiece, he shoots back: It's Boléro, what else; unfortunately, there's no music in it."
What I love about this passage is how it takes Ravel's harsh yet ultimately neutral remarks on Boléro -- that it was only ever intended as an experiment and contains no development, modulation, etc. -- and, rather than going in the familiar direction of sensationalized gossip (i.e. "Ravel hated Boléro"), Échenoz emphasizes the aspect of the work that might be seen as a deliberate, ironic, pessimistic joke. In doing so, Échenoz perhaps sensationalizes his own depiction of Ravel. Yet what is tremendous about the Échenoz is that it takes these two commonly opposed assessments -- on the one hand, Ravel's dismissive opinion of Boléro and, on the other hand, the public's undying adulation -- and unifies them, and not through that familiar elitist argument that the public could only possibly respond favorably to a substandard work. Rather, it is that the public, albeit subconsciously, understands the nihilism of Ravel's work all too well. Ravel makes a joke at the world's expense, and the world turns it back on him. His reaction is not one of condescension but rather fear at witnessing the world responding to this work in a way that seems horrific but ultimately true.