About This Work
Maurice Ravel's Boléro is easily its composer's most famous work. It is famous to historians and record-books for ostensibly containing the longest-sustained single crescendo anywhere in the orchestral repertory; it is famous to collectors of
anecdotes for having been humorously dubbed a "piece for orchestra without music" by Ravel; and it is famous to musicians and music lovers for being both the most repetitive 15 minutes of music they are likely to play/hear and also one of the most absolutely well-composed 15 such minutes. But, though Ravel would almost certainly have objected to this particular kind of fame, Boléro is most famous for having served as the background music for an erotic interlude in a major Hollywood motion picture (10, starring Bo Derek and Dudley Moore).
Boléro was commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubinstein in 1928; she specifically requested a work with Spanish character. Ravel's original intention was to orchestrate sections of Albéniz's Iberia, but he could not obtain the rights. Ravel wrote his miniature ballet as a technical exercise in composition, seeking to grow an entire orchestral work out of only a single melodic idea. It never occurred to him that it might become a popular work; but it did of course, and two years later Ravel crafted a version for two pianos so that he might continue to reap the harvest he had unwittingly sown. The premiere itself (at the Theatre of the Paris Opera with Rubinstein and her troupe, on November 22, 1928) was so enthusiastically received, that the audience shouted for the encore of the final scene.
Boléro is, on the surface, an astoundingly simple piece. An ostinato rhythm in the percussion begins at the beginning and maintains its steady pulse throughout; likewise an ostinato bass pattern. Atop this firm foundation is placed a theme in two halves that is made into what more-or-less amounts to a set of variations. Instruments are added, harmonies are filled-out, the music grows louder and more rambunctious, and, in a grand climax, C major is abandoned for E (if only for a brief time); here, for the very first time, we get the unsettling impression that it is perhaps not a happy piece after all, but a most disquieting commentary on aspects of life in the Roaring Twenties (Ravel himself was quite disturbed by how quickly high society took up Boléro as its own). C major is quickly re-established, and pungent trombone glissandos lead the way to a hair-raising close.
-- All Music Guide
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