Ravel: Bolero

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado

MYCU: Part 6

 In one swift stroke of genius, I wrote a wonderful post about this piece, and then Blogger ate it. I am livid. Thankfully, I have most of it still in mind. Thanks for nothing, technologies.

From Wikipedia: Ida Rubinstein, the inspiration behind Boléro. Portrait by Valentin Serov.
I had to check with a friend to make sure this wouldn’t sound weird, but there’s basically two things you need to know about this piece, and they are as follows:
  1. It’s a fantastic treatise in orchestration
  2. It’s like, the sexiest piece of classical music ever.
Let me explain.
The piece began as a commission for Ravel from the above scantily-clad ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein. She wanted him to orchestrate at least parts of Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia for a ballet. He’d done some ballets before, and was apparently keen on the idea. Turns out a guy named Enrique Arbós had already done that, and there were copyright laws, although Arbós was willing to waive them for
Ravel. Ravel decided against it and turned to picking one of his own already-written pieces to orchestrate and prepare, and then he decided not even to do that. One day on vacation, he played, with one finger, a little melody to his friend and said the following:

Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.

Ravel is a genius. But yeah, that was the idea. And he pretty much stuck to his word. It premiered in 1928 in Paris to overwhelming acclaim. It is one of Ravel’s last works before failing health forced him retire. There are only a few pieces published after this, two of which, notably are his two piano concertos. The background, or performance notes for the piece at the premiere were different
from what the composer had in mind. While Ravel envisioned a factory setting for the dancer(s) in keeping with the mechanical-ness of the music, the notes for the premiere read as follows:

Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.

I see this fitting with the idea of the piece, perhaps the famed Ms. Rubinstein herself joining it at some point in the evening when the music gets more lively, and that’s in keeping with the ‘sexy’ idea, as well.
The piece, as a result of Ravel’s concept, is incredibly straightforward. There are three things you need to know about it musically:

  1. Snare drum ostinato
  2. First straightforward 18-bar phrase
  3. Second, more jazzy 18-bar phrase
Above is the snare drum ostinato. “What is that?” you ask? It comes from the Italian word for ‘stubborn’ (think ‘obstinate’) and it’s basically a phrase or musical idea repeated over and over and over, usually in the same voice at the same pitch. This piece is probably the best and most extensive use of an ostinato in all of classical music, because it plays literally from beginning to end nonstop.
Over that, you have the two 18-bar phrases. We could call them A and B. A is played twice, then B twice, for one ‘cycle’ or ‘block’ or whatever of 72 bars. The first is the ‘original’ theme, and the second has more syncopations and accidentals that make it more… unique.
As we cycle through these repetitions, a different instrument or combination of instruments takes their turn with either of the melodies, and the piece progresses in this fashion.
Before we go too much farther, let’s talk about structure. That AABB thing may sound like ‘structure’ but it’s not. One of the most common structures in classical music, or one of the most common ways of organizing musical ideas in an interesting way is called sonata form, and it’s kind of complicated if you don’t know about keys and their relationships, but you basically have two contrasting musical ideas. Contrasting could just mean slightly different, or working against one another. These two ideas are presented, and then in a development section, reworked and flipped every which way and changed and modified and manipulated into interesting combinations or contrasts of each other before finally ‘resolving’ to exactly the way they were at the opening (usually, or in the past).
A simpler structure for a movement is a ‘ternary’ form, or ABA, where the A-A parts make up the beginning and end of the movement or piece, with a contrasting middle section.
Our A and B here are virtually the same thing, and they just keep repeating, so we don’t so much have structure as a very repetitive long line. But that’s actually important for those two points I mentioned at the very beginning, the bit about orchestration and the bit about sexy. What about those?
Well, for one, as everyone has probably learned with something at one point or another in their lives, and as many composition textbooks will point out in the first chapter, too much repetition leads to boredom. So how, then, is it that Ravel took the same theme (in two slightly different ways) and repeated it for 14 minutes and not only make it not boring but sexy? Well, let’s start with the instrumentation, but then talk about the real reason.
It’s ever-changing. What we’ll talk about in just a moment is the brilliance of the theme itself, but it’s brought alive by the changing voices that present it. It starts small, with just one voice, then another, and another, and another, building a little each time. Wikipedia has the progression listed in order, which you can go check out for yourself (or just listen), but something interesting is that Ravel included saxophones! Not just your run-of-the-mill alto, either, but sopranino saxophone, as well as tenor doubling on soprano. In any case, this variety in voices each time makes it newer, just different enough to keep the listener interested, and that’s where the sexy bit comes in.
We’re going to keep this PG rated, but that slight but constant building and changing creates so much tension! The melody itself is Spanish-y, suggestive, slithery and even seductive. But even then, played over and over again, it gets old. So with each repetition, just enough changes to entice the listener, it pulls the ear to just…. one… more… listen, giving away just enough but never being too revealing. It’s basically musical foreplay. But all that tension has to go somewhere, and it does.
About halfway through the piece, we start getting a bit more complicated, as instruments begin to double up on the melodies, but in different keys. It’s notable that this piece is in C for almost the entire duration, except for a raucous bit at the end that transitions to E major briefly. It really starts to build momentum at the end, as the whole orchestra (or most of it) is finally unified in the playing of this theme, snare drum all the while still tapping out that heartbeat-like rhythm, just tons louder than at the beginning.
In reality, this piece is like one, giant long crescendo, a snare-drum concerto with orchestral accompaniment. Pay attention. It’s always there, and never changes. In fact, I went to a performance of this piece last year and the snare drum was brought front and center, not where a violin soloist would stand, but right up in the director’s face.
I didn’t take this. My guest who sat on the front row with me did. The pony-tailed head is the drummer. The patience…. 
A photo posted by Alan M 3 (@foreignwords) on Dec 8, 2013 at 5:13am PST

So like I said, the piece is a sexy treatise on orchestration. It was actually suggested that I make a study of the orchestration in this piece when was in the beginnings of my compositional studies (of which I am still in the beginnings). It’s amazing how, with almost nothing else changing, and a really great melody, even small changes in how that melody is presented can keep the listeners’ attention.
And now to the matter of tempo: it kind of reminds me of Italian food. If you’re making really clean, simple, basic Italian food, your ingredients better be damn good, because if they’re not all top notch, your dish is gonna suck. The same is true of this piece. With so little to work with, everything has to be just right. For one, the degree of the crescendo has to be perfectly measured so it’s constant and proportional to how far along you are in the piece. In the same way, tempo is an issue. Ravel had very clear ideas about how fast this piece should be played, and Arturo Toscanini (Italian!) had very clear and very different ideas about how he wanted to play it. There was some drama over this, but it ended up in Ravel’s favor. In short, I feel like… too fast and the tension or seduction never builds, too slow, and it just dies.
In short, this is a fun, sexy, very entertaining piece of music to listen to, and Ravel’s most successful work. As a beginner, listen for the individual sounds of the orchestra, when each instrument enters and how it sounds by itself or with the ensemble. If you’re more advanced, listen for the doublings in different keys (and fill me in when you do). All in all, it’s a brilliantly-crafted piece of music based from a simple and almost ridiculous idea, but, as with so many of Ravel’s works, the mental picture is so clear, the atmosphere palpable. Well done, sir, well done.
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