Related Artists/CompaniesMaurice Ravel
About the Work
Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, France.
Died December 28, 1937 in Paris.
"Ravel's Boléro I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music," fumed the critic Edward Robinson in 1932. He was hardly the only music lover disparaging the piece when it was new - the composer himself informed his colleague Arthur Honegger, "I have written only one masterpiece. That is the Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music." When told that a woman at the Paris premiere had pointed in his direction and cried out, "He is mad," Ravel smiled, and said that she truly understood the work.
Despite critical misgivings, however, the public, always the ultimate arbiter, made Boléro one of the most popular pieces of concert music written in the 20th century. Within weeks of its American premiere, it carried Ravel's name and music to more ears than had any of his other works of the preceding four decades: virtually every major American orchestra scheduled Boléro for immediate performance; six recordings appeared simultaneously; the melody was arranged for jazz bands and just about every conceivable instrument and ensemble, including solo harmonica; it appeared in a Broadway revue and a cabaret; it served as background music for the 1934 film of the same name starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, as well as another Hollywood effort of more recent vintage in which Dudley Moore pursued a beautiful fantasy on a beach in Mexico. Even the city fathers of Ravel's home town were moved to name the street on which he was born in his honor. Soon after the Paris orchestral premiere in 1930, Ravel was in Monte Carlo with the conductor Paul Paray. When they walked past the Casino, Paray suggested, "Let's go in and play." Ravel replied, "No. I have played, and I don't play any more. I have won." Indeed he had.
Ravel originated what he once called his "danse lascive" at the suggestion of Ida Rubinstein, the famed ballerina who also inspired works from Debussy, Honegger and Stravinsky. Rubinstein's balletic interpretation of Boléro, set in a rustic Spanish tavern, portrayed a voluptuous dancer whose stomps and whirls atop a table incite the men in the bar to mounting fervor. With growing intensity, they join in her dance until, in a brilliant coup de théâtre, knives are drawn and violence flares on stage at the moment near the end where the music modulates, breathtakingly, from the key of C to the key of E. So viscerally stirring was the combination of the powerful music and the ballerina's suggestive dancing at the premiere that a near-riot ensued between audience and performers, and Miss Rubinstein narrowly escaped injury. The usually reserved Pitts Sanborn reported that the American premiere, conducted by Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1929, had a similar effect on its hearers: "If it had been the custom to repeat a number at a symphonic concert, Boléro would surely have been encored, even at the risk of mass wreckage of the nerves."
Of the musical nature of this magnificent study in hypnotic rhythm and orchestral sonority, Ravel wrote in 1931 to the critic M.D. Calvocoressi, "I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding about this work. 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 about seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music' - of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal ... folktunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity.... I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it."