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Boléro

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Four French Composers Inspired by Spain Mar. 12 - 14, 2015
© Thomas May

Together with his colleague Debussy, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) shared a long-standing fascination with Spanish themes. Ravel had the added advantage of a mother of Basque origin who had spent many years in Spain and who instilled in her son an enthusiasm for Spanish culture. One of Ravel's earliest pieces was in fact the Habanera for two pianos (which won Debussy's admiration). In Boléro, a work dating from the end of his career, the love of Spanish themes converges with Ravel's ongoing preoccupation with the dance. Like several of his best-known works, Boléro began life as a ballet before it went on to become even more familiar in the concert hall-and of course in film scores and elsewhere in popular culture.

Boléro began life as a ballet for Ida Rubinstein, a celebrity ballerina formerly with the Paris-based Ballets Russes - the dance company that had commissioned Stravinsky's revolutionary ballets. Rubinstein asked Ravel to orchestrate a pre-existing set of piano pieces on Spanish themes composed by Isaac Albéniz (for the suite titled Iberia, performed on last week's programs). Copyright issues got in the way, and Ravel decided to craft an entirely new score to an original ballet scenario suggested by Rubinstein.

The scenario: a female flamenco dancer in a Spanish tavern is lustfully cheered by a crowd. She leaps onto a table and dances with mounting passion as the men are driven into a state of excitement by her performance. In contrast to Ravel's classically themed, large-scale ballet Daphnis et Chloé or the episodic dance suite illustrating fairy-tales from Mother Goose, Rubinstein's idea was to focus attention on a single dancer, evoking an atmosphere reminiscent in some ways of Carmen. (Ravel actually concocted an alternative scenario set in front of a factory-this is the source of the relentless mechanical rhythmic pattern we hear in the score. It involved workers who pour forth to dance to its industrial, machine-like rhythms as well as another Carmen-esque motif of a bullfighter and murderous jealousy being played out, according to the Ravel scholar René Chalupt.)

In either case-and in a way that's even more apparent in the ballet's better-known concert format-the stark simplicity of the narrative finds its musical correspondence in Ravel's fixation on the hypnotic rhythmic pattern of the traditional bolero (a subconscious reminder not only of his Basque mother but, perhaps, of the precision-engineered discipline displayed by his father, a Swiss inventor). The Andalusian bolero consists of two measures in triple meter at a moderate tempo. This is repeated by the snare drum throughout the piece-one of the two repetitive elements around which Ravel structures the piece.

The second element is, of course, the Boléro melody itself. Laid out in two sections (each is repeated), the melody unwinds like a charmed snake. Ravel assigns the theme to a slowly varying array of instrumental groups from among his unusually large orchestra, starting with a solo flute and passing from solo instruments to larger choirs. Through all its repetitions, Boléro emerges as a radical variation on the idea of variation itself. The melody remains the same, but the colorations, textures, and intensity change.

Boléro's over-familiarity can make it hard to appreciate just how avant-garde were several aspects of Ravel's conception here. Contemporaries even speculated as to whether this music was evidence of insanity. Still, this was experimentalism that had appeal, and Boléro quickly became a hit. One radical aspect is the single-minded monomania of the repetition, which looks ahead to the continuous looping technique of Steve Reich's brand of Minimalism. Another is the complete absence of thematic development, that mainstay of musical content in the Western classical tradition. Yet the piece seems to grow. Ravel structures Boléro as a slowly building crescendo. Moreover, the constant shifting of tone colors against the rigid rhythmic pattern generates a sense of tension that, at the climax, is finally released in a chaotic sonic explosion.