Boléro

Just before departing on his American Tour in 1928, Ravel received a commission from Ida Rubinstein for a ballet, to be called Fandango. His intention was to orchestrate some pieces from Iberia by Albéniz, but as he was beginning work on it in July, he discovered that the rights to the music were already assigned to the Spanish composer Enrique Arbós. Ravel was initially dismayed and at a loss how to fulfil his commission. However while continuing his holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, he developed a Spanish-sounding theme which had about it "quelque chose d'insistant".

"L'homme de la rue se donne la satisfaction de siffler les premières mesures du Boléro, mais bien peu de musiciens professionnels sont capables de reproduire de mémoire, sans une faute de solfège, la phrase entière qui obéit à de sournoises et savantes coquetteries."
( Émile Vuillermoz, [1938], p.88-89).

Boléro, as the work was renamed, lasts approximately 15 minutes, and repeats each of the theme's two parts 9 times in the same key, using different orchestrations to vary the texture and to create a gradual crescendo. (The pattern is AA BB repeated 4 times, and then a single repeat of AB, leading to the modulation which gives the piece its cataclysmic ending.)

Ravel was insistent that the work should be played at a steady and unvarying tempo (as his own recording demonstrates). "C'est une danse d'un mouvement très modéré et constamment uniforme, tant par la mélodie que par l'harmonie et le rythme, ce dernier marqué sans cesse par le tambour. Le seul élément de diversité y est apporté par le crescendo orchestral." (Ravel, [1938]). After a performance in 1930, he reprimanded Toscanini for taking the work too fast and for speeding up at the climax. (Coppola, [1944], p.105)


At the first performance of her ballet production, at the Opéra in November 1928, Ida Rubinstein danced the role of a flamenco dancer who is trying out steps on a table in a bar, surrounded by men whose admiration turns to lustful obsession. Ravel did not entirely approve; his own conception was an outdoor scene in front of a factory whose machinery provides the inflexible rhythm; the factory workers would emerge to dance together, while a story of a bullfighter killed by a jealous rival was played out. ( Chalupt, [1956], p.237). It was performed in this way, with designs by Léon Leyritz, at the Opéra on one occasion after Ravel's death.

In concert performances, Boléro became Ravel's most popular work, and it is reputed to be the world's most frequently played piece of classical music. The royalties earned by the work up to 2001 have been estimated at 40 million: an article outlining the strange history of this money appeared in The Guardian on 25 April 2001.

Much has been written about Boléro. One detailed analysis of its structure appears in Deborah Mawer's chapter, "Ballet and the apotheosis of the dance", in The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, [2000], pp. 155-161. The impact of its repetitive technique (e.g. 4037 drum beats) is considered by Serge Gut in "Le phénomène répétitif chez Maurice Ravel: de l'obsession à l'annihilation incantatoire", in International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol.21(1) [June 1990], pp.29-46. [For those with access to JSTOR, an online version of this article is available.]

Claude Lévi-Strauss considers the semiotics of the work in "Boléro de Maurice Ravel", in L'Homme, vol.11(2), [1971], pp. 5-14.

And from a performer's perspective, Jean Douay has written about the role of the trombone - and how to play it - in "Thoughts to Ponder: What Would Ravel Think?--More Thoughts on Ravel's 'Bolero'", in ITA Journal, vol.26(2), [Spring 1998], p. 23.

www.maurice-ravel.net