The bassoon solo in Bolero comes near the beginning of the piece, directly after the opening solos of the flute and clarinet. These two instruments begin with statements of the A theme, which is a consonant melody characterized by its metric and rhythmic regularity, and one octave range. The bassoon follows with the first appearance of the B theme, creating an overarching antecedent-consequent melodic structure. In contrast to the A theme, the B theme is highly dissonant and often places the metrical emphasis on parts of the measure other than the downbeat. Also noteworthy is that the B theme spans a range of two octaves and a minor second—over twice that of the A theme.
Tempo and Rhythm
Deciding on an appropriate tempo for Bolero is the first important step towards preparing a musical, rhythmically accurate performance. Choose a tempo that is too slow and the solo will sound stagnant and laborious, yet choose a tempo that is too fast and the finer nuances of the gestures will be lost. Furthermore, rhythmic accuracy becomes more difficult when the subdivisions must be internalized at a slower tempo, while technical challenges such as the repeated high D♭ – C – B♭ gesture can seem overwhelming if the pace is too brisk. Bearing all these considerations in mind, the tempo I recommend for Bolero is ♩= 70-72.
This is similar to the tempo Claudio Abbado takes in his recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, and listeners will likely notice how much more fluid and dance-like it sounds than the other examples. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Skrowaczewski’s painfully slow performance with the Minnesota Orchestra, which clocks in with a tempo around ♩= 56. Keep in mind, Bolero was originally written for live dancing, and choosing such a slow tempo undermines the character and original intent of the piece.
The main thing most audition committees listen for in Bolero is rhythmic accuracy. This topic could fill an entire chapter by itself, but I will take time to outline just a few of the practice techniques at our disposal. The best advice I can give is to practice religiously with a metronome—sometimes set to sixteenth-note subdivisions and sometimes set to eighth-note subdivisions—and then record and listen to yourself as much as possible. Make note of your own personal tendencies. For example, I tend to start passages that come after rests just a hair early, while I tend to play notes that come directly after sustained notes or breath markings slightly late. However, I would have never discovered these tendencies without recording myself over and over, and this should be a step that all students should work to incorporate into their own practice. My simple setup consists of my laptop, a $100 USB Yeti microphone, and Logic Pro recording software (though you can also use a program like Audacity, which is available to download for free). The technology and software is cheap and easy enough that self-recording should be a regular part of everyone’s practice sessions.
As I discussed with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one effective practice technique for developing rhythmic stability is to replace sustained notes with tongued sixteenths (Example 13.1). In his excerpt CD and book, McGill also gives very useful advice for dealing with the two sections that have eighth-sixteenth-triplet rhythmic progressions. He points out that the rhythm of each subsequent grouping (clarified in Example 13.2a) does not change until the second note of the group signals that it has (Example 13.2b). He writes, “In all music, if you think of where the next beat will arrive, instead of where the last beat has sounded, your solid rhythm will be the envy of your colleagues.”1 Playing the F and D as if they each belonged to the previous rhythmic grouping will help alleviate the tendency to rush here.
Example 13.1. Ravel, Bolero, 4 bars before Rehearsal 3 to Rehearsal 3, written-out subdivisions
Example 13.2. Ravel, Bolero, 7 and 6 bars before Rehearsal 3, typical note groupings and David McGill’s note groupings
Using the Fundamental Line to Determine Phrasing
Understanding the trajectory of a melody’s fundamental line can greatly inform our interpretive decisions. In the case of Bolero, the bassoon’s melody is essentially a controlled, stepwise decent from B♭4 to C2 (scale degrees♭7 to 1) over the course of seventeen bars (Example 13.3). You will notice there are two substantial passages that deviate from this downward movement, but we can understand these as modal extensions of the fundamental descending line.2
Example 13.3. Ravel, Bolero, bar 3 of Rehearsal 2 to Rehearsal 3, fundamental line
The fundamental line of the solo should form the basis of both our larger and smaller phrasing decisions. Looking at the first few bars, we see that the fundamental line is a long, sustained B♭ that resolves to A, and descends stepwise to E (Example 13.4).
Example 13.4. Ravel, Bolero, bars 3 to 6 of Rehearsal 2, application of fundamental line phrasing to written music
If we played only this basic line, then we would crescendo through the B♭ into the A (resolving from scale degree♭7 to 6) and then decrescendo back down to the E (Example 13.4a). This overarching line should still be shown when the sixteenth notes are present, and it is this basic line that should inform our decisions for the smaller nuanced gestures underneath. Example 13.4c shows how the written “filler” notes should lead to and away from each note of the fundamental line.3 Understanding which sections extend the fundamental line can also inform our phrasing. For example, I play the section that prolongs the D3 very broadly (bars 8 to 6 before Rehearsal 3), as if the note were indeed being held throughout the entire two bars.
Accents and Articulation
Ravel’s articulation markings in Bolero can be the cause of some disagreement amongst bassoonists. In his article “Bolero Unraveled: Dissonance as a Factor in Interpretation of Phrasing,” bassoonist Dale Clark argues that the D♭ in bar 9 of Rehearsal 2 should be accented, claiming that Ravel simply left this marking off the downbeat because it should already be implied. I respectfully disagree—the absence of an accent here is crucial to emphasizing the subsequent accent on the G, which creates a shift in metric emphasis similar to the ones found in the fourth bar of Rehearsal 2 and the sixth bar before Rehearsal 3. In fact, I argue that if this note were indeed meant to be accented, Ravel would have included an accent as he also does at the beginning of the fourth bar before Rehearsal 3.
Instead of executing the accents with a harsh, sudden sp effect that quickly decays, we should strive to give them a warmer, rounder shape that tapers more gradually. This is very similar to the technique that Weisberg describes as an “expressive” attack:
[…] the expressive attack is actually a combination of a soft attack and an accent. Its purpose is to bring out the note, but in such a way as to minimize the surprise or suddenness of the attack. It makes the note stand out, but without the violence of an accent.4
In very basic terms, an expressive attack is nothing more than hairpin swell, but with the peak of the swell occurring much closer to the beginning of the note than the end.
The accents in the sixth and fourth bars before Rehearsal 3 immediately follow quick breaths, and can therefore be difficult to play with a warm, expressive attack. The brevity of time in which the breath must be taken can cause two specific issues: the embouchure not resetting properly for the accented note after the breath, and the glottis closing down during the panic to get in a fast breath. The key is to give the note before the breath a full, resonant ending, and then to breathe by keeping the top lip on the reed and only lowering the jaw. This will help the throat stay open and keep the embouchure as stable as it can be during the breath. The entire process of resonant ending to quick breath to expressive attack should both feel and sound as fluid and uninterrupted as possible.
There are a couple of “short” fingerings we can use in Bolero to greatly ease the difficulty of some of the trickier note sequences. In the first bar, the B♭4 – C4 interval can be played simply by lifting the second and third finger of the left hand (Fingering 13.1), and in the sixth and seventh bars, the repeated descending C4s can be fingered with only the left hand first finger and either the D or C flick key (Fingering 13.4). I have also included my preferred full fingerings for C4 (Fingering 13.2) and D♭4 (Fingering 13.3), which, as the♭9 of the underlying harmony, should be quite low in pitch. While this fingering works well for me in this regard, you may want to experiment with your own variations to find a fingering that is suitably flat. As for actually playing the D♭4, use an open voicing along with a balanced embouchure that has a slight emphasis on the top lip.
1 McGill, 49.
2 These extensions are indicated in Example 13.3 by dashed slurs: the E appearing on the downbeat of the fourth bar is extended by the passage that ascends to the high D♭4, and the following D is extended by the passage that ascends to F3.
3 Ravel even provides an accent marking on the final B♭ before the A, reinforcing the notion that the resolution of B♭ to A is the most important part of the phrase.
4 Weisberg, 51.