Maurice Ravel: Boléro
Composed originally as a ballet that was commissioned by the Russian actress Ida Rubinstein, Maurice Ravel’s orchestral work Boléro is his most famous composition. Before composing Boléro in 1928, Ravel had composed music for ballets including suites for ballet and full large-scale ballet scores. For instance he composed the full score of music for the 1912 ballet Daphnis et Chloé for the Paris-based company Ballets Russes. Ravel is often noted for his ballet works, most notably the orchestra score of Ma mère l’oye (1912) and the one-movement work La valse (1920).
Although the final product that came from Rubinstein’s commission has been one of the most popular pieces of music ever written, it wasn’t part of the original idea. Boléro came about during the evolution of this commission, as Rubinstein’s original request was for Ravel to orchestrate six pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia. This ended up not happening due to copyright issues being given to Spanish composer Enrique Arbos. Ravel was offered to rights by Arbos, but declined as he wanted to take this commission on a different course.
Ravel looked back to some of his earlier piano pieces for inspiration, but finally decided to start from scratch. When holidaying at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel started playing some melodies on a piano and etched out a simple melody, soon to be the famous Boléro motif. The composer famously turned to a friend at this point and said:
“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I am going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”
Musicologist Lee Douglas describes Boléro as “Ravel’s most straightforward composition in any medium.” It is in C major, 3/4 time and is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm set out by a snare drum. The music starts at a very delicate pianissimo dynamic and grows throughout the 15 minute piece.
This repeated rhythm grows in both dynamic and texture as more instruments join in. The tension of the work is built through the forces that Ravel enlists to play this driving rhythm. On top of this rhythm are two melodies, each of which are 18 bars in length. The first melody is encased within one octave, is diatonic in tonality and sets the foundation for the second melody which spans over two octaves and introduces more modal movement, syncopation and flattened notes.
The simple bass line is played by pizzicato strings, mainly using tonic and dominant notes. Tension is built during the steady percussive rhythm, the long and expressive melody and the plodding bass line. Unlike many other works Boléro does not develop through the melody or tonality. Instead, the music keeps interest by Ravel’s constant re-orchestration of the melody which leads to a wide-variety of timbres, textures and dynamics. The melodies are repeated a total of eight times, with the ninth time foreshadowing a development into E major, which doesn’t get very far until returning back to C major.
Ravel chooses an eclectic mix of instruments to play the melody including: flute, clarinet, bassoon, tenor saxophone, trumpet, horn, celesta and more. The different tuning of the instruments give each repetition of the melody a new lease of life, which keeps both the interest and intensity of the music going.
The final climax at the end sees the orchestra unify as the final proclamation of the melody and the foundation rhythm. The percussion are in full force at this point too with the tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum and snare drum all playing the foundation rhythm to thicken the texture out even more so. As the whole orchestra come together to play the opening snare drum rhythm, except for the trombones who play a dramatic set of glissandi above the heavy triplet texture underneath. The work ends with the orchestra holding a dissonant Db chord and falling down to a C major tonic chord.
Boléro builds up over time, adding greater resources each time which leads to a powerful close. The premiere at the Paris Opera’s ballet season in 1928 went in Ravel’s favour, with the work becoming popular quickly around the world. It is one of the most performed pieces in concert halls today, and will likely remain in the public sphere for many years to come. Simplicity is key in Ravel’s Boléro, and through this simplicity came an iconic work of art.