Boléro is a one-movement orchestral piece by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). Originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, 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.
- 1 Composition
- 2 Premiere and early performances
- 3 Music
- 4 Criticism
- 5 Legacy
- 6 References
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
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's 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 22 November 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 during the entire ballet season, but the musicians 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, in the mayhem that followed the premiere performance a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel smiled and remarked that the woman had been the only one who 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 arranged a version for two pianos, published in 1930.
The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on 8 January 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.
Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on 14 November 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 4 May 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:
- piccolo, 2 flutes (one doubles piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubles oboe d'amore), cor anglais, 2 clarinets (one doubles on E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 saxophones (one sopranino and one tenor doubling on soprano), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
- 4 horns, piccolo trumpet, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba
- timpani, 2 snare drums, a bass drum, one piece/pair of orchestral cymbals, tamtam, celesta
The instrumentation calls for a sopranino saxophone in F; modern sopraninos 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 come once each in part, meaning they cannot be used in later parts of the music (including the finale). The oboe d'amore actually 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 in C major, 3/4 time, beginning pianissimo and rising in a continuous crescendo to fortissimo possibile (as loud as possible). It 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 two melodies are heard, each of 18 bars' duration, and each played twice alternately. The first melody is diatonicer, the second melody introduces more jazz-influenced elements, with syncopation and flattened notes (technically it is in the Phrygian mode). The first melody descends through one octave, the second melody descends through two octaves. The bass line and accompaniment are initially played on pizzicato strings, mainly using rudimentary tonic and dominant notes. 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. Both themes are repeated a total of eight times. At the climax, the first theme is repeated a ninth time, then the second theme takes over and breaks briefly into a new tune in E major before finally returning to the tonic key of C major.
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 most 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):
|Part||Instruments that follow the snare drum's rhythm||Instruments that follow the theme to Boléro||Instruments that follow the quarter/eighth note rhythm|
|1st||none but 1st Snare drum||1st Flute||Violas and Cellos|
|2nd||2nd Flute||1st Clarinet||same|
|3rd||1st Flute||1st Bassoon||same, and Harp|
|4th||2nd Flute||E-flat clarinet||same|
|5th||1st and 2nd Bassoons||Oboe d'amore||String quartet with Basses except 1st Violins|
|6th||1st Horn||1st Flute & 1st Trumpet (con sordino)||Strings with Basses except 2nd Violins|
|7th||2nd Trumpet (con sordino)||Tenor saxophone||1st and 2nd Flutes, and Strings|
|8th||1st Trumpet (sord)||Sopranino saxophone, later, interchanges with the Soprano saxophone||Strings, 1st & 2nd Oboes and Cor anglais|
|9th||1st Flute & 2nd Horn||1st Horn, 2 Piccolos, Celesta||Strings, Harp, 1st and 2nd Bassoons and Bass clarinet|
|10th||3rd Trumpet (con sordino), 2nd Horn, and Violins and Violas||1st Oboe, Oboe d'amore, Cor anglais and 1st & 2nd Clarinets||1st & 2nd Trumpets (both sord), Harp, Bass clarinet and 1st and 2nd Bassoons|
|11th||Violas (arco), 1st Flute and 2nd Horn||1st Trombone||Rest of the Strings, 1st and 2nd Clarinets, Bass clarinet, Harp and Contrabassoon|
|12th||1st Trumpet (senza sordino), 4th Horn and 2nd Violins (arco)||All Wind instruments (except Bassoon and Contrabassoon), and Tenor saxophone||Strings but 2nd Violins, Harp, Bass clarinet, Bassoon and Contrabassoon|
|13th||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|
|14th||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|
|15th||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 and Bass clarinet, later||1st & 2nd Clarinets, 1st & 2nd Bassoons, Contrabassoon, Tenor and Sopranino saxophone, 1st and 2nd Trombone, Tuba, Timpani Harp and some Strings|
|16th||1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Horns||All Woodwinds 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 and 3rd Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Harp and Double bass|
|17th||1st & 2nd Oboes, 1st & 2nd Clarinets, all Horns, 2nd Violins, Violas and Cellos, 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||Bass clarinet, Bassoons, Contrabassoon, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Harp and Double bass|
|18th||same||same but the 1st Trombone in going with the theme||the same but not the 1st Trombone|
|Finale||All instruments except listed in the quarter/eighth rhythm on the right||Glissando: 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 Piccolo and Flutes play the Snare drum's theme, and the Trumpets play the three-eighth note rhythm before the start and after the end of 17th|
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.
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. In May 1994, with the Munich Philharmonic on tour in Cologne, conductor Sergiu Celibidache at the age of 82 gave a performance that lasted 17 minutes and 53 seconds, perhaps a record in the modern era.
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)."
Philosopher Allan Bloom commented in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, "Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel's "Bolero" is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them."
In a 2011 article for the Cambridge Quarterly, Michael Lanford noted that "throughout his life, Maurice Ravel was captivated by the act of creation outlined in Edgar Allan Poe's Philosophy of Composition." Since, in his words, Boléro "[defies] traditional methods of musical analysis owing to its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic repetitiveness," he offers an analysis of Boléro that "corresponds to Ravel's documented reflections on the creative process and the aesthetic precepts outlined in Poe's Philosophy of Composition." Lanford also contends that Boléro was quite possibly a deeply personal work for Ravel. As evidence, Lanford cites Ravel's admissions that the rhythms of Boléro were inspired by the machines of his father's factory and melodic materials came from a berceuse sung to Ravel at nighttime by his mother. Lanford also proposes that Boléro is imbued with tragedy, observing that the snare drum "dehumanizes one of the most sensuously connotative aspects of the bolero," "instruments with the capacity for melodic expression mimic the machinery," and the Boléro melody consistently ends with a descending tetrachord.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (June 2012)|
African singer Angélique Kidjo has created a vocal adaptation of the Boléro called "Lonlon" in which almost all of the instrumental parts of the score are sung in the Mina language of Benin. It is included on her Grammy-winning album Djin Djin.
French gipsy François (Canut) Reyes, a member of the Gipsy Kings, sings Spanish lyrics to "Boléro" on his first solo album, on which it serves as the title track. The song is accompanied only by Reyes’ guitar and percussion.
"Boléro" was also arranged for guitar by Kotaro Oshio and that arrangement is performed in concert,and on Youtube, by Sungha Jung.
Nintendo composer Koji Kondo initially planned to use the Boléro as the title theme for The Legend of Zelda, but was forced to change it when he learned, late into the game's development cycle, that the copyright for Boléro hadn't expired yet; therefore he wrote a new arrangement of the overworld theme within one day.
Nearly 20 years after the premiere of Ravel's Boléro, its influence had reached to the West and even further to the East. While directing Rashomon (1950), Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa demanded from the film's composer Fumio Hayasaka, "a piece like Ravel's "Boléro," to link to a particular scene. In Kurosawa's Rashomon there are a series of four characters that give their testimony as witnesses to a murder. For the duration of Masako Kanazawa's (the leading female character) testimony the soundtrack begins to play, for nearly 10 minutes a rather similar selection of Ravel's Boléro. The track used in the film is neither a theme nor a variation of Boléro, however, one unaware of Kurosawa's demand but familiar with Boléro are sure to hear some rather explicit similarities. Two similarities that are easily identifiable are "the unchanging ostinato rhythm" and the rising continuous crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo. The rhythm may be a straight lift out Boléro, while the primary melody could easily be mistaken for Ravel's. Michael Harris commenting on the use of a Boléro-esque track in Kurosawa's Rashomon, "Together, Hayasaka and Kurosawa brilliantly use traditional Japanese theatre aesthetics upon which to hang this fractured tale of memory and lies."
The music is the central piece and scene which gives name to film El bolero de Raquel ("Raquel's Shoe Shine Man"/"Raquel's Bolero"), a 1957 Mexican film starring Cantinflas, Manola Saavedra and Flor Silvestre. Child actor Paquito Fernández was nominated for a 1958 Silver Ariel for Best Performance by a Child Actor for the role of Chavita. This was Cantinflas' first color film in Mexico, and in it he played a shoe shiner (bolero in Spanish) working to support his godson, Chavita. Cantinflas accidentally dances to Ravel's Boléro with actress Elaine Bruce, a scene reminiscent of his Apache dance in the 1944 film Gran Hotel.
In the 1980 movie 10, the character played by Bo Derek asks "Did you ever do it to Ravel's Bolero?", a reference to the thinking that the work is a good soundtrack for making love to. A four-minute excerpt of Boléro is used during the subsequent sex scene. This significantly increased sales of recordings of the work, which is still under copyright in many countries.
The background music during the fight scene in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time" (first air date 15 September 1967), has portions of the Boléro theme (less the drum background). On the planet Vulcan, Spock must battle Kirk in a fight to the death over Spock's betrothed wife because she picked Kirk to champion her.
In the anime film Legend of the Galactic Heroes: My Conquest Is the Sea of Stars, the first half of the final battle features Boléro in its score.
Boléro is used in another science fiction show, Doctor Who, in "The Impossible Planet". It is played by a character on a research station that The Doctor and Rose Tyler are visiting during a montage sequence.
The anime series Digimon Adventure and the associated pilot film of the same name make heavy use of Boléro as a leitmotif relating to events on Earth in the original Japanese version; the English dub does not make use of it or the rest of the Japanese version's soundtrack.
Boléro is used in the episode of The IT Crowd titled "Something Happened".
Nintendo composer Koji Kondo had at first wanted to use Boléro as the title screen music for The Legend of Zelda (video game). Due to copyright issues, however, he had to scrap the idea and compose original music of his own.
In the anime Nodame Cantabile, Boléro is featured in its 7th episode of its second season and also has different adaptions played as background music throughout many episodes of the show to set the mood of a scene.
Torvill & Dean
Boléro was famously used as the accompanying music to the gold-medal-winning performance by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. The pair commissioned a specially-adapted version of the work to comply with Olympic time restrictions to accompany their dance, which gained them the highest score of all time and the gold medal.
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- Bolero in Rock – Ravel's Boléro Drumbeat in Rock Music Throughout the Decades