On this date in 1928 Maurice Ravel’s Boléro premiered in Paris. Boléro was originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein and is, without doubt, Ravel’s most famous musical composition, to the extent that when most people think of Ravel, Boléro is the first (perhaps only) thing that comes to mind. Boléro epitomizes Ravel’s mature stage of composition that was preoccupied with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement. His two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée song cycle were the only compositions that followed Boléro.
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 had its genesis in a commission from 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 Fernández 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 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.” According to Idries Shah the main melody is adapted from a tune composed for and used in Sufi training.
The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs and scenario 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 his surprise. He had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. However, it is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story from the premiere performance, a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel is said to have remarked that she had understood the piece.
Boléro 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 and Ravel attended the recording session. The following day, Ravel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in his own recording for Polydor. 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 “You don’t know anything about your own music. 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, an invitation which he declined.
The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased Boléro’s fame. Other factors in the work’s renown were the considerable 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:
woodwinds: piccolo, 2 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling on oboe d’amore), cor anglais, 2 clarinets (one doubles on E♭clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 saxophones (one sopranino, one soprano and one tenor), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
brass: 4 horns, 4 trumpets (3 in C, one in D), 3 trombones, bass tuba
3 timpani and percussion: 2 snare drums, a bass drum, one piece/pair of orchestral cymbals, tam-tam
celesta and harp
The instrumentation calls for a sopranino saxophone in F, which has never existed (modern sopraninos are in E♭). At the first performance, both the sopranino and soprano saxophone parts were played on the B♭ soprano saxophone, a tradition which continues to this day.
Boléro is extremely straightforward. 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 diatonic, 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♭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.
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, of course. 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. Perhaps in no other modern composition is tempo so critical. The insistent beat of the snare drum is the underpinning of the whole piece. Should we be slaves to the composer’s wishes? A difficult question. All composers, no matter how rigid in their directions, provide wiggle room for interpretation. Some directions are of necessity imprecise. How loud is fortissimo? How soft is pianissimo? With tempo it’s not as imprecise in modern times because of metronome markings, but there is still some wiggle room there, even with a metronome. Clearly Ravel was not thoroughly consistent. It also depends whether it is being played as an orchestral piece alone, or to accompany dancers. Also remember that it is called Boléro for a reason; it’s meant to evoke the bolero, which means the tempo should be consistent with the dance.
Creating a menu to do in taste what Ravel did with sound is an interesting challenge. The way I think of it is that you need something that is consistent through all the courses as the base, but then another ingredient or series of related ingredients that all match in some way, but which are in marked contrast to the base – increasing in complexity as the meal progresses. I’d need to actually plan a full dinner party to test out such an idea. I’m thinking, for example, that if milk were your base, you’d start with a glass of milk. Then perhaps you could have onions in milk, then leeks in milk, then shallots in milk – then onions and garlic, then onions, garlic, and chives . . . and so on. The trouble with those ingredients is that it would not be a very satisfying meal. I’ll open this up to my readers and see who’s paying attention. You need to think first about what will be your “snare drum” – a consistent undertone, such as milk, bread, or wine. It has to be able to stand alone at the outset. Then as the meal progresses each course needs to have an ingredient that blends with the basic ingredient, but strives to break out, culminating in a richly complex set of ingredients. Course should follow course with the added ingredients becoming more varied and complex. What do you think?