March 31, 1980 12:00 PM

In the decades since its wildly cheered debut in Paris in 1928, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero has been beloved by Philistines and belittled by cognoscenti. One poll of music lovers ranked it the third most boring composition ever. Ravel himself considered it a minor work, predicting, “This is a piece Sunday concerts will never dare include.” He was referring to its reputation as a musical aphrodisiac—the piece builds rhythmically on a single theme for 17 minutes before ending in a feverish climax. But, partly for that very reason, Bolero has become the most widely recorded classical piece written in the 20th century, and it was even made into a 1934 movie with George Raft and Carole Lombard.

Now in 1980, 43 years after Ravel’s death, Bolero has carried off the ultimate crossover: It has leaped from the classical charts to pop and become the unlikeliest record hit of the year. The reason is a four-minute 58-second Bolero excerpt on the sound track of the movie “10,” which Bo Derek insists on playing while making love to Dudley Moore. As a result Bolero sales have exploded tenfold in many cities. The hot Bolero recordings include versions conducted by Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Sir George Solti—not to mention a disco spinoff by Walter (A Fifth of Beethoven) Murphy. The biggest seller is Henry Mancini’s truncated version on the “10” sound track. As he explains when he conducts the number on tour these days: “The original Bolero is the supermacho version. The sound track’s five-minute version is the average man’s, and the single—which is three minutes 17 seconds—is the workingman’s version.”

“It doesn’t matter which orchestra is playing,” says one record store manager in Denver. “They just want it.” Of course, as a sex aid, the Bolero is a plain-brown-wrapper item. “No one ever wants it for himself,” explains a salesman in Houston. “It’s always ‘for a friend.’ ”

Unlike such previous made-in-Holly-wood highbrow hits as Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra (used in 2001) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (Elvira Madigan), Bolero remains under copyright and has helped boost overall annual royalties for Ravel’s estate to an estimated $1 million, making him currently the most financially successful classical composer. That fortune has already stirred one bitter court battle and, with the latest Bolero bonanza, is again focusing attention on Ravel’s strange legacy.

Born in France of Swiss-Basque ancestry, Ravel was a refined and private man who stood barely 5’3″ and was known for his elegant dress (he was one of the first men in France to wear pastel-colored shirts). The composer of the passionate Bolero rarely kept company with women and was possibly a homosexual. When he died in 1937 of a brain tumor (at least one biographer hints of venereal disease), he left his entire estate to his only sibling, Edouard Ravel, an engineer.

More than a decade later Edouard was living in southern France when he hired a masseuse, Jeanne Taverne, to care for his semi-invalid wife. After his wife died, Edouard asked Jeanne to stay on as a housekeeper, along with her hairdresser husband, Alexandre. Edouard soon changed his will, part of which was originally designed to create a sort of Nobel Prize for music, and left his entire fortune to Jeanne, who had conveniently divorced her husband. But eight days before Edouard was to marry Jeanne, he died suddenly at 82. Three months later Jeanne and Alexandre were remarried and began a life of luxury in Edouard’s house.

Rumors soon buzzed that Edouard had been beaten and drugged by the Tavernes. In any case, after Jeanne died in 1964, Alexandre Taverne came to marry Georgette Lega, a blond divorcée. Meanwhile two of Ravel’s distant cousins, Marcelle Perrin and her brother, Marc, had surfaced in Geneva and filed suit over the inheritance. “I think we lost before we started,” says Marcelle, now 67. “Taverne had a lot of money for defense. Besides, the jurors were French and we were Swiss.” In the end, Marcelle not only lost but had to pay court costs and a thousand-franc penalty.

Now retired from a lifetime of odd jobs, Ravel’s closest living relative resides in a tiny apartment in a working-class section of Geneva with her 20-year-old grandson, Serge, and her memories. Ravel used to bring her dolls during his visits, Marcelle recounts, “but once when we played Bolero on the gramophone to surprise him, he begged, ‘Turn off that awful music!’ ”

Marcelle’s brother died nine years ago, as did Alexandre Taverne in 1973. The Ravel estate, with its booming Bolero royalties, has passed on to Alexandre’s widow, Georgette, who, by virtue of being the second wife of the man who was once married to Ravel’s brother’s wife’s masseuse, is one of Europe’s wealthiest heiresses. “I wouldn’t want to be in that woman’s skin,” declares Marcelle before adding: “She could give me 2,000 francs to fix this place up, but I wouldn’t take it.”

Living in almost total seclusion near Gstaad, Georgette refuses to discuss Ravel and isn’t especially interested in his music. But the composer’s works will continue to make beautiful melodies in her bank account. By law, Georgette Taverne will be entitled to collect Bolero’s American royalties until the year 2004.

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