It’s one of the most iconic and sensuous pieces of twentieth century music, delivering the ultimate exploration of orchestral color. Yet, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro was conceived as a kind of composition exercise. The composer explained,
It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece…consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo.
Now a staple of the concert hall, Boléro was originally composed as a ballet, commissioned in 1928 by the Russian dancer, Ida Rubinstein. At first, Rubinstein asked Ravel to orchestrate six piano pieces from Isaac Albéniz’ 1909 suite, Iberia. Ravel was informed that the music had already been orchestrated by the Spanish conductor, Enrique Fernández Arbós, and copyright prohibited another version. Arbós waived his rights when he learned of Ravel’s interest in the music. Yet, by that time, Ravel had decided to compose original music.
Igor Stravinsky once called Ravel “the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers.” Nowhere is this sense of pristine craftsmanship more apparent than in the musical “experiment” of Boléro. Yet, as we experience this piece as listeners, all thoughts of compositional technique fade away. A simple, infectious melody floats over an unyielding rhythmic ostinato played 169 times by one or more snare drums. The melody emerges as a quietly alluring flute solo and, over the course of fifteen minutes, grows into perhaps the greatest orchestral crescendo ever conceived. Filled with gradually rising tension, this magically hypnotic music pulls us into an eternal, sublime “present moment.” At first, we hear the familiar orchestral voices of the flute, clarinet, and bassoon. Then come the more exotic voices of the oboe d’amore (slightly larger and more mellow than the regular oboe) and the saxophone. Hazy intimations of jazz blend with the sultry sounds of Spanish music (the strumming of string pizzicati for example). Voices enter in the melodic line and then take their place in the repeating rhythmic ostinato line. As the piece unfolds, instrumental colors mix creating stunning new voices. Amid this tonal alchemy, we forget about the familiar instruments of the orchestra and revel in the creation of magical new sounds. In the eighth section, two piccolos, first horn, and celesta evoke the mixture stop of a pipe organ, in which artificial overtones are created. Boléro reaches its climax with a sudden, surprise turn from C major to E major, after which the remaining bars seem to spin out of control and careen to a thunderous conclusion.
Ravel was insistent that the tempo should remain moderato assai (“very moderate”) throughout. In May of 1930, Arturo Toscanini conducted a brisk, thirteen minute performance, telling the composer, “You don’t understand your music at all. It’ll fall flat if I don’t play it my way.” Ravel reported replied, “Then don’t play it at all.” For some listeners, in Boléro human and mechanical pulses blend. The traditional Spanish boléro, a dance set in a slow three, enters into a dreamlike transformation in which it becomes hardly recognizable. From film soundtracks and repetitive rock music to the work of Frank Zappa and the 1970s electronic sound world of Synergy, the cultural influence of Ravel’s Boléro looms large.
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Featured Image: “Ida Rubinstein” by Valentin Serov (1910)