Boléro is a one-movement orchestral piece by Maurice Ravel. Originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian ballerina Ida Rubenstein, the piece, which premiered in 1928, is Ravel's most famous musical composition. Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large scale ballets (such as Daphnis et Chloé, composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (such as the second orchestral version of Ma Mère l'Oye, 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (such as La Valse, 1906-1920). Apart from such compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes (the 1895 Menuet and the 1899 Pavane) to his more mature works like Le tombeau de Couperin (which takes the format of a dance suite).
Boléro epitomises Ravel's preoccupation with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement: the two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée song cycle were the only compositions that followed Boléro.
The work had its genesis in a commission from the dancer Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz' set of piano pieces, Iberia. While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own previously-written works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece based on the musical form and Spanish dance called bolero. While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." This piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to "Boléro".
Premiere and early performances
The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs by Alexandre Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Ernest Ansermet had originally been engaged to conduct the orchestra during its entire ballet season; however the orchestra refused to play under him. A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:
Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.
Ravel himself, however, had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.
Boléro became Ravel's most famous composition, much to the surprise of the composer, who had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. It is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story, at the premiere a woman shouted that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel smiled and remarked that she had understood the piece. The piece was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself composed a version for two pianos, published in 1930.
The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on January 8, 1930. The recording session was attended by Ravel. The very next day Ravel made his own recording for Polydor, conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra. That same year further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The Toscanini affair
Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1929. The performance was a great success, bringing "shouts and cheers from the audience" according to a New York Times review leading one critic to declare that "it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro", and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into "almost an American national hero".
On May 4, 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra's European tour. Toscanini's tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signaled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini's gesture during the audience ovation. An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account Ravel said "It's too fast", to which Toscanini responded "It's the only way to save the work". According to another report Ravel said "That's not my tempo". Toscanini replied "When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective", to which Ravel retorted "Then do not play it". Four months later Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that "I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations" and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased Boléro's fame. Other factors in the work's renown were the large number of early performances, gramophone records (including Ravel's own), transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture Bolero starring Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.
Boléro is written for a large orchestra consisting of two flutes (second flute doubles another piccolo), piccolo, two oboes (oboe 2 doubles oboe d'amore), cor anglais, two B-flat clarinets (Bb Clarinet 1 or 2 doubles on E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, piccolo trumpet in D, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two saxophones (one sopranino and one tenor doubling on soprano — one of the first large ensemble pieces to employ the family), timpani, two snare drums, a bass drum, one piece/pair of orchestral cymbals, tamtam, celesta, two harps and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses).
(The sopranino saxophone called for in the instrumentation is a sopranino saxophone in F; the ones of today are in E-flat. Today, both the soprano saxophone and the sopranino saxophone parts are commonly played on the B-flat soprano saxophone.)
(The celesta, E-flat clarinet, and the soprano saxophone only comes once in part, meaning they cannot be used in later parts of the music [including the final]. Actually the oboe d'amore comes twice, one after the E-flat clarinet, and the other with the oboes and clarinets.)
Boléro is "Ravel's most straightforward composition in any medium". The music is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on one or more snare drums that remains constant throughout the piece:
On top of this rhythm is repeated a single theme, consisting of two eighteen-bar sections, each itself repeated twice. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the "expressive vocal melody trying to break free". Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo.
The melody is passed among different instruments: 1) flute 2) clarinet 3) bassoon 4) E-flat clarinet 5) oboe d'amore 6) trumpet (with flute not heard clearly and in higher octave than the first part) 7) tenor saxophone 8) soprano saxophone 9) horn, piccolos and celesta 10) oboe, English horn and clarinet 11) trombone 12) some of the wind instruments 13) first violins and some wind instruments 14) first and second violins together with some wind instruments 15) violins and some of the wind instruments 16) some instruments in the orchestra 17) and finally all but not all the instruments in the orchestra (with bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam). While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onwards other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overtones of each note of the melody. The other significant "key doubling" involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these "key doublings", Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.
This table here shows how the composition is actually played by what instruments (in order):
||Instruments that follow the snare drum's rhythm
||Instruments that follow the theme to Boléro
||Instruments that follow the quarter/eighth note rhythm
none but 1st Snare drum
Violas and Cellos (both pizz.)
same, and harp
||1st and 2nd Bassoons
String quartet with basses except 1st violins (all pizz.)
1st Flute & 1st Trumpet (con sordino)
||Strings with basses except 2nd violins (still, all pizz.)
||2nd Trumpet (con sordino)
||1st and 2nd Flutes, and strings (still pizz.)
||1st Trumpet (sord)
Sopranino saxophone, later, interchanges with the Soprano saxophone
Strings (pizz), 1st & 2nd Oboes and Cor anglais
||1st Flute & 2nd Horn
1st Horn, 2 Piccolos, Celesta
Strings (still pizz), harp, 1st and 2nd bassoons and Bass clarinet.
||3rd Trumpet (con sordino), 2nd Horn, and Violins and Violas
||1st Oboe, Oboe d'amore, Cor anglais and 1st & 2nd Clarinets
||1st & Second trumpets (both sord), harp, bass clarinet and 1st and 2nd bassoons
||Violas (arco), 1st Flute and 2nd Horn
Rest of the strings (still pizz), 1st and 2nd Clarinets, bass clarinet, harp and Contrabassoon
||1st Trumpet (senza sordino), 4th Horn and 2nd Violins (arco)
||All wind instruments (except Bassoon and Contrabassoon), and Tenor Saxophone
||Strings but 2nd Violins (still pizz), harp, bass clarinet ,Bassoon and Contrabassoon
||1st and 2nd Horns
||Flutes, Oboes and Clarinets (both 1 & 2), Piccolo, 1st Violins (arco)
Strings (still pizz, again), 3rd and 4th Horns, Timpani and 1st and 2nd Bassoons & Contrabassoon
||3rd and 4th Horns
||same, and with Cor anglais, Tenor Saxophone, and 2nd Violins
||Sopranino saxophone, harp, bassoon, contrabassoon, 1st and 2nd Horns and timpani.
||1st and 2nd Horns, later, 2nd Horn will turn to the theme (interchanging with the 1st Trumpet)
||All wind instruments except clarinets, bassoon and contrabassoon, 1st Trumpet and 1st and 2nd Violins, later, Violas (arco) and Bass Clarinet
||1st & 2nd Clarinets, 1st & 2nd Bassoons, Contrabassoon, Tenor and Sopranino Saxophone, 1st and 2nd Trombone, Tuba, Timpani and some Strings.
||1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Horns
||All winds except Bassoons and Contrabassoon, Sopranino Saxophone, 1st Trombone, 1st and 2nd Violins, Violas and Cellos, later, the Sopranino saxophone will interchange the theme with the Tenor Saxophone.
||Bass Clarinet(later, turning to the theme), Bassoon, Contrabassoon, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Trumpet, 2nd Trombone, Tuba, Timpani and Double bass (arco)
||1st & 2nd Oboes, 1st & 2nd Clarinets, all Horns, 2nd Violins, Violas and Cellos. (all pizz.), added with another Snare drum playing throughout.
1st & 2nd Flutes, Piccolo, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Trumpets, Piccolo trumpet, Sopranino and Tenor Saxophone, and 1st Violins
||Bassoons, contrabassoon, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Trombones, Tuba, Timpani and Double Bass
||same, but the 2nd Violins, Violas and Cellos now in arco
||same but the 1st Trombone in going with the theme
||the same but not the 1st Trombone
||All instruments except listed in the quarter/eighth rhythm on the right
||Glissando is the theme: 1st, 2nd, 3rd Trombones and Sopranino and Tenor Saxophone
||Oboes, Clarinets, Cor Anglais, Bassoons, Contrabassoon, Tuba, Timpani, Double Bass, and Bass Drum, Cymbals and Tam-tam
The accompaniment becomes gradually thicker and louder until the whole orchestra is playing at the very end. Just before the end (rehearsal number 18 in the score), there is a sudden change of key to E major, though C major is reestablished after just eight bars. Six bars from the end, the bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam make their first entry, the English horn returns, and the trombones and both saxophones play raucous glissandi while the whole orchestra beats out the rhythm that has been played on the snare drum from the very first bar. Finally, the work descends from a dissonant D-flat chord to a C major chord.
The highly repetitive nature of Boléro, out of keeping with the contemporary musical tradition, and Ravel’s creativity in previous pieces, has led to a hypothesis that he was in early stages of dementia (not necessarily Alzheimer’s) at the time of composing it. On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article saying Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia in 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro. Of course, a dementing illness may have also underlain his initial obstinacy with Toscanini.
Tempo and duration
The tempo indication in the score is Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"). In Ravel's own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted. Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72. Ravel's own recording from January 1930 starts at around 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60-63. Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds. Coppola's first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds. Ravel said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that the piece lasts 17 minutes.
An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel's associate Pedro de Freitas Branco, extending well over 18 minutes and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski's 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes.
At Coppola's first recording Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola's own report:
Maurice Ravel [...] did not have confidence in me for the Boléro. He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: "not so fast", he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.
Ravel's preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini's performance, as reported above. Toscanini's 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds.
Ravel was a stringent critic of his own work. During Boléro's composition, he said to Joaquín Nin that the work had "no form, properly speaking, no development, no or almost no modulation". In a newspaper interview with The Daily Telegraph in July 1931 he spoke about the work as follows:
It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of "orchestral tissue without music" — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.
In 1934, in his book Music Ho!, Constant Lambert wrote: There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La Valse and towards the beginning of Boléro).
^ Boccadoro, Patricia, "The best and worst of Maurice Béjart", Culture Kiosque Dance Review.
^ a b c Orenstein (1991), p. 99
^ a b c d e f g h i Orenstein (1991), p. 98
^ a b Mawer, p. 227
^ a b Lee, Douglas (2002). Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra. New York and London: Routledge. pp. 329. ISBN 0415938465. http://books.google.com/?id=ccdVNW-RBS0C&pg=PA329&vq=%22open-air+setting+with+a+factory+in+the+background%22&dq=ravel+structure+bolero.
^ Kavanaugh, Patrick (1996). Music of the Great Composers: A Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 56. ISBN 0310208076. http://books.google.com/?id=qSFD5A6r3QEC&pg=PA56&vq=%22she+had+understood+the+piece%22&dq=bolero+mad+understood.
^ a b c d Woodley, Ronald (2000). "Syle and practice in the early recordings". in Mawer, Deborah. The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge University Press. pp. 236–237. ISBN 0521648564. http://books.google.com/?id=rLDc8oHUBi0C&pg=PA236&vq=coppola&dq=coppola+bolero
^ a b c d e Ravel & Orenstein, pp. 590-591
^ Mawer, p. 224
^ Dunoyer, Cecilia (1993). Marguerite Long: A Life in French Music, 1874-1966. Indiana University Press. pp. 97. ISBN 0253318394. http://books.google.com/?id=7bAWQFTeEK4C&pg=PA97&dq=ravel+bolero+toscanini.
^ English translation and facsimile of French original in Sachs, Harvey (1987). Arturo Toscanini from 1915 to 1946: Art in the Shadow of Politics. Turin: EDT. pp. 50. ISBN 8870630560. http://books.google.com/?id=hGlynQgCEcYC&pg=PA50&dq=ravel+bolero+toscanini.
^ Mawer, pp. 223-224
^ Bolero Ravel: Encyclopedia - Bolero Ravel
^ Cybulska EM (1997). Boléro unravelled: a case of musical perseveration, Psychiatric Bulletin,21: 576-577.
^ Blakeslee, Sandra (April 8, 2008). "A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/health/08brai.html?_r=1&ref=scienc. Retrieved April 26, 2010.
^ a b c d e Ravel & Orenstein, p. 541
^ a b Calvocoressi, M. D. (1931-07-11). "M. Ravel discusses his own work: The Boléro explained". Daily Telegraph. reprinted in Ravel & Orenstein, p. 477
^ (2006) Album notes for Leopold Stokowski conducts Dvorak, Sibelius and Ravel [CD liner]. Music and Arts (CD-841).
^ Coppola, Piero (1982)  (in French). Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 1922-1939. Geneva: Slatkine. pp. 105–108. ISBN 2050002084., quoted and translated in Ravel & Orenstein, p. 540
^ Nín, Joaquín (December 1938). "Comment est né le Boléro". Revue Musicale: 213, quoted and translated in Mawer, p. 219
^ New York Times, 2 May 1999
Mawer, Deborah (2006). The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. ISBN 0754630293.
Orenstein, Arbie (1991). Ravel: Man and Musician. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486266338.
Ravel, Maurice; Arbie Orenstein (2003). A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews. Minneola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486430782.