November 22, 1928 at the Paris Opera, conducted by Walther Straram
For Maurice Ravel, Bolero was essentially a compositional experiment that began with a commission from Ida Rubinstein for her dance company in Paris. According to his good friend Gustave Samazeuilh, Ravel came up with the melody one morning before a leisurely swim while noodling away at the piano with just one finger.1 Ravel turned to his friend and remarked:
Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.2
Five months after this conversation, Ravel had completed the score for Bolero. The structure of the piece was based on the repetition of only two melodies, and was highly unusual for the time. Music critic Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi reported a conversation with the composer in the July 11, 1931 issue of The Daily Telegraph:
I asked Ravel whether he had any particular remarks to offer on his Bolero, which had been made the subject of heated discussions in England as elsewhere. His reply was: ‘Indeed, I have. 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 seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of “orchestral tissue without music”—of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of the execution… It is perhaps because of these peculiarities that no single composer likes the Bolero—and from their point of view they are quite right. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.’3
While it is clear that Ravel approached Bolero as a sort of self-imposed challenge in orchestration and repetitiveness, what is not clear is exactly why Ravel chose this approach. In a 1932 interview, Ravel remarked that he was heavily influenced by the idea of a factory, and even envisioned one as the backdrop for the ballet performances:
I love going over factories and seeing vast machinery at work. It is awe-inspiring and great. It was a factory which inspired my Bolero. I would like it always to be played with a vast factory in the background.4
A New York Times article published in 2008 suggested that Ravel might have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia (also known as Pick’s Disease) by 1928.5 Signs of this rare brain condition were beginning to appear in the form of spelling errors that Ravel made in his scores and letters,6 and the illness may have contributed to Ravel’s impulse to compose a piece of such a repetitive nature. He frequently complained of suffering from insomnia and cerebral anaemia after serving in World War I, and was officially diagnosed with Pick’s Disease when his condition worsened after a serious car accident in 1932.7 By this period, Ravel found it practically impossible to put music down onto paper, and was essentially in retirement. In December 1937, Ravel underwent an experimental brain operation that he was never able to recover from, and died only a few days later. Despite its composition almost 10 years before his death, Bolero was one of Ravel's final works.
Bolero contains a persistent, underlying triplet rhythm that is similar to what is found in the Spanish dance music of the same name. However, Ravel was quick to point out that his Bolero was not as close to a traditional bolero as its title might suggest; in fact, he had originally titled the work Fandango after a Spanish dance that shares a similar rhythm. This suggests that Ravel’s approach was to use the basic rhythmic underpinnings of Spanish dance music in order to convey an inherently Spanish character, rather than to rigidly follow any particular dance form. In 1930, Ravel commented:
As far as Bolero is concerned, if it interests you, I would like to say, to avoid any misunderstanding, that in reality there is no such bolero, that is, I have not given this piece the typical nature of this Spanish dance, intentionally so. Its theme and rhythm are repeated to the point of obsession without any picturesque intention, in a moderato assai tempo… Both theme and accompaniment were deliberately given a Spanish character. I have always had a predilection for Spanish things. You see, I was born near the Spanish border, and there is also another reason: my parents met in Madrid…8
Coincidentally, two of Ravel’s other works that feature the bassoon prominently—Alborada del gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole—also express a similarly strong affinity for the music and culture of Spain.
The original production of Bolero by Ida Rubinstein’s dance company consisted of a simple premise that closely mirrored the cumulative structure of the score: a young girl (Rubenstein) begins dancing a bolero atop a table in a dimly-lit Spanish café, and other dancers join in as the music progresses, crescendoing until the climax. Ravel, who was inspired by the imagery of factories, also envisioned a factory for the background of the performances. As he imagined it, the machinations would provide the perfect visual metaphor for the relentless, unwavering rhythm of the music. Unfortunately for Ravel, this interpretation would not be performed in Paris until 1941, over three years after his death.
1 Field, 458.
3 Ibid., 459.
4 Ibid., 460.
5 Sandra Blakeslee, “A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity,” New York Times, April 8, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/health/08brai.html (accessed April 17, 2011).
7 Barbara L. Kelly, “Ravel, Maurice,” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/52145 (accessed April 17, 2011).
8 Field, 459.