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The surprising story of Ravel's Bolero

Ravel's Bolero
Ravel's Bolero

Maurice Ravel’s Boléro is probably the composer’s most famous work and, for that matter, one of the most familiar in the orchestral repertoire. Beloved in its original form, it has also made its way into popular culture in pop covers, adverts, on the big and small screen and even as the music for a winning routine by a pair of British Olympic ice skaters...

Why is it famous?

Because for 15 (or so) minutes the composer casts an hypnotic orchestral spell that is remarkable in that it actually consists of so little. There is almost no thematic development or (with one exception) key changes. Instead it consists of a melody repeated 17 times over a Spanish bolero rhythm played 168 times. Interest is maintained by Ravel’s imaginative orchestration, which gets gradually larger and louder until the end. There is also one startling modulation, though even that quickly reverts back to the home key of C.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Wiener Philharmonic in a performance of ‘Boléro’:

Ballet origins

Nowadays the work is almost always played as a purely orchestra ‘concert’ work, though in fact it was conceived as a ballet. Dancer Ida Rubinstein commission it in 1922, though her original request was for an arrangement of six pieces from Issac Albeniz’s Iberia. Copyright issues prevented the completion of this work, with Ravel eventually coming up with his novel idea of taking a single theme and sustaining it through orchestration alone. The piece was nevertheless first performed as a ballet with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska to a scenario she divided with Ida Rubinstein:

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.

A very saxy piece

The theme of the piece comes is in two parts, each repeated (see the version here for bar references). The first (bars 3–19) is straightforwardly diatonic (it uses just the white notes in its home key of C major). The second (bars 21–37) is a development of the first, but introducing more syncopation and accidentals. This gives the sections a distinctly jazzy flavour. As if to enhance this effect Ravel chooses to include the saxophone in his orchestration, giving the tenor and soprano saxophones solos in the 6th and 7th variations and featuring them prominently elsewhere. These instruments had until that time had only occasionally been included by composers in orchestral works, but were very much associated with the world of jazz (for more information about the saxophone’s troubled orchestral history, click here: ).

Ravel was dismissive of the work

‘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. This was not his only recorded negative view of the piece. When Ravel’s brother Eduardo told him that over the applause one performance he had heard one lady respond with shouts of ‘Rubbish! Rubbish!’, Ravel remarked that ‘that old lady got the message.’ Ravel also wrote to the composer Arthur Honegger saying ‘I've written only one masterpiece — Bolero. Unfortunately, it has no music in it.’ Also, years later, when Ravel was with conductor Paul Paray at the casino in Monte Carlo, he declined the opportunity to try his hand at gambling, remarking ‘I wrote Boléro and won. I'll let it go at that.’

In popular culture

Despite Ravel’s negative view of the work, its popularity continues to this day, as evidenced by its frequent use in popular culture. Some of the most famous example of this include....

The U.S. rock musician and composer Frank Zappa created an avant-garde cover of ‘Boléro’ in his album ‘The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life’ (1991), adding to it his signature fusion of rock and experimental music:

In 1984 British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean used an arrangement of ‘Boléro’ for their gold winning ice skating routing at the Sarajevo Olympics, scoring an unmatched score of twelve sixes.

The eclectic musical group Pink Martini performed a playful and jazzy rendition of ‘Boléro’ on their album ‘Sympathique' (1997), adding a unique twist to the classical piece.

The work has also appeared extensively in films and on the television, including in ‘Soylent Green’ (1973), ‘Bolero’ (1984), ‘Paradise Road’ (1997) and ‘Basic’ (2003), as well as television series like Doctor Who (Series 2/ Ep. 8 ‘The Impossible Planet’), Futurama (Season 5/ Ep. 16 ‘The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings’) and ‘The Simpsons’ (Season 9/ Ep. 12 ‘Bart Carny’).

It was also used for a 2010 Coca Cola Super Bowl Commercial, entitled ‘Sleepwalker’:

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