To finish our series on the music of Maurice Ravel, we’re listening to his most famous composition.
Ravel initially composed Bolero as part of a ballet that was commissioned to him by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubenstein, who had asked him to write an orchestral overture based on a set of piano suites by the baroque composer Isaac Albeniz. However, Ravel discovered that there were copyright restrictions on Albeniz’s work that prohibited him from doing so. Without informing Rubenstein, he went ahead and composed something of his own creation based on the Spanish bolero dance form. Rubenstein was delighted, as was the Paris audience at its world premiere. It immediately become Ravel’s best-loved composition.
You will notice that the piece is very simple. It is in the simplest key (C Major), contains the simplest dynamic structure (one long crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo), and features one simple melody that is based on – of all things – the snare drum. There are two primary melodies, the second of which incorporates some of the jazz elements that we’ve seen Ravel utilize on other occasions. Throughout the entire piece, the tension between the snare drum and the lyrical melody (usually in the woodwinds) increases with the dynamic buildup. Every time the melody comes around, a new element is added to the orchestra that increases the density and maturity of the sound. Ravel passes the melody through the flute, the clarinet, the oboe, the bassoon, the E-flat clarinet, the trumpet, the saxophone, the horns, the English horn, the trombone, the first violins, and numerous combinations of these instruments. I find this piece particularly interesting because it offers a unique perspective on the ways that a single instrument can affect the whole of an ensemble.
You will also notice that despite the steady increase in dynamic, the tempo never changes. Ravel happened to be extraordinarily particular about this aspect of the piece, and more than one conductor endured his wrath when they let the orchestra speed up the tempo near the end of the piece. Ravel’s reasoning was that he wanted the listener to focus on the unique change in texture that each instrument brought to the music. So, in the interest of avoiding Ravel’s anger, I would recommend that you listen carefully for the ways in which each cycle of the melody is different. What instruments are added? What do they bring to the table? How is this cycle different than the last?