Ravel’s ‘crazy’ Boléro is 90 this year

This autumn sees the 90th anniversary of French composer Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, one of the most popular pieces of classical music in the world despite – or perhaps because of – it being so unconventional.

27 August 2018
By Oliver Rowland

Ravel actually thought most orchestras would refuse to play it and in later years lamented “I only wrote one masterpiece but unfortunately it has no music in it” (he preferred his more complex works). After one early performance a woman reputedly cried out “he’s crazy”, to which Ravel said “she’s spot on”.

It repeats a tune 18 times over a quarter of an hour, without variation or rhythm changes, with gradually more instruments and volume. It starts with a snare drum, pianissimo, then brings in a flute and builds up to the whole orchestra fortissimo possible (as loud as possible).

Next month there is a chance to hear music by Ravel and his contemporaries at Les Journées Ravel festival in Montfort l’Amaury, Yvelines (in its 23rd year). The town is home to the house where Ravel lived when he composed the hit.

The Boléro was popular right from the start and went on to be used in many ways, inclu­ding a 1934 Hollywood film Boléro in which it featured heavily as it did in 1981 Cannes festival prizewinner Les Uns et les autres by Claude Lelouch (released as Boléro in the US) and a danced version by renowned French/Swiss choreographer Maurice Béjart considered by many his masterpiece. Many Britons discovered it through Jayne Torvill and Christo­pher Dean’s 1984 Winter Olympics winning performance and it has gone on to be used in every final of the British TV show Dancing on Ice.

In fact the piece was commissioned by Ravel’s friend Ida Rubin­stein, a former star ballerina of the Ballets Russes, who wanted to put on a show with a Spanish theme. He based it on the ¾ rhythm of a dance, the Boléro, he had come across on trips to Spain, writing a tune he considered to have an ‘insistent quality’ and using the ‘experimental’ idea of continual repetition, which he said “will work, with a bit of luck”. He came up with it after facing copyright issues over his original idea of setting for orchestra some Spanish piano pieces.

At its premiere at the Paris Opera on November 22, 1928, it was performed set in a tavern by Rubinstein and her troupe with the dancer leaping onto a table and dancing sensually and more and more energetically to cheers of encouragement. A critic called it ‘sumptuous’.

Today it is usually a purely orchestral work. Legendary Italian conductor Arturo Tos­canini gave it its American premiere in 1929 by the New York Phil­harmonic when it was greeted with “shouts and cheers from the audience”, according to a New York Times review.

He conducted the orchestra again on tour at the Paris Opera in 1930, again to acclaim, but fell out with Ravel for playing “too fast” and “not my tempo”. Toscanini is said to have retorted: “You don’t know anything about your own music – it’s the only way to save the work”.

Another peculiarity is that it calls for a sopranino (miniature, high-pitched) saxophone in F – an instrument which was never made – as well as soprano and tenor ones. The top part is usually played on a Bb soprano saxophone, the highest stan­dard version of the instrument.

Ravel was born in a fishing village near Biarritz in 1875 to a Swiss inventor father and Spanish mother and is often called ‘impressionist’, like his contemporary and rival Debussy. He had eclectic sources of inspiration ranging from baroque to jazz.

The president of the Journées Ravel festival, Patricia Guerlain said: “The Boléro is a daring piece, it’s innovative and you can’t get it out of your head - but I like all of his work.

“He lived the last 17 years of his life in our town and we’re very interested in him here. Each year we listen to his music and I’ve learned to love him more than any other composer.”

She added: “He composed an enormous amount, not just the Boléro; Pavane pour une infante défunte [dance for a dead princess], Le Tom­beau de Couperin [Couperin’s tomb], Concerto pour la main gauche [concerto for the left hand], Chansons Madécasses [Madagascan songs]… they’re all superb.”

Ms Guerlain said Ravel’s home in their town has remained intact. “There are all his little objects and you can discover his personality.

“It’s touching and subtle and people who like Ravel find it moving to see. He decorated it himself and was meticulous, which comes across in his tiny little house.” (for visits see tinyurl.com/yaj6o4f5).

The festival runs from October 6-14 (lesjourneesravel.com). Highlights will include prize-winning French string quartet Quatuor Ebène, leading pianist Philippe Cassard (who will play extracts from Le Tombeau de Couperin and Pavane pour une infant défunte, among other pieces) and Stra­vinsky’s The Soldier’s Story, played by the Orchestra of the Republican Guard with a recitation by actor Lambert Wilson (known especially for the Matrix films).

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