Maurice Ravel is an internationally known tremendous composer, famous for many of his mind blowing pieces such as: La Valse and Rapsodie Espagnole, but Bolero; one of the last pieces he composed, is perhaps the most popular one. Critic reviews are divided about Bolero, some say that it is unconventional since Ravel rejects new forms of modernism that other composers of the twentieth century, like Igor Stravinsky, portrayed. Stravinsky had an avant-garde way of composing where he used folk tunes in an abstract way. While other critics praise Bolero, a one-movement orchestral piece, for being ‘simplistic’ yet wonderful.
Maurice Ravel was a French composer, pianist and conductor born on 7th March 1875 who died at the age of 62 because of the Pick’s disease that damaged his brain (It is reported that he wrote Bolero with Prick’s disease).
Ravel’s friend Ida Rubinstein; a Russian actress and dancer asked him to rework the piano pieces by Spaniard Isaac Albeniz into, “an orchestral transcription for six pieces of Albeniz’s Iberia.” But it had been Ravels aim to compose something with a single theme that gradually grows. So one day when he was on a vacation in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, he got the perfect idea and instead composed his original piece: Bolero. It is reported that one morning he played a melody on the piano with just one finger and asked a friend how it would sound like if he repeated it multiple times without any development. And that is how Bolero came into being. When Bolero debuted for the first time his friend Rubenstein played the solo role of the café dancer.
Bolero; a simple piece with sufficient repetition, was first performed at the Paris Opera on 22nd November 1928. It was widely talked about because of its huge success, the piece had blown away everyone, as there had never been anything as mesmerizing as it before. The audience was in awe and even Ravel himself was astonished by how well it turned out to be.
Bolero was choreographed by the famous U.S based Russian dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, since she was a talented ballet choreographer, and Bolero was originally commissioned by Rubenstein as a ballet musical composition.
Ballet is undoubtedly one of the most passionate dance forms and it can be quite challenging creating a melody for such a dance, but Bolero doesn’t fail to amaze and deliver. Contrarily, it is so extraordinary that it almost makes the composition look so simple. Indeed Ravel has managed to create a mysterious atmosphere around the dance due to which Rubenstein was able to capture the male audience during the composition’s signature crescendo.
Bolero, a fifteen minute fifteen seconds long composition, based on a single ostinato rhythm that does not change throughout the piece is a musical work of art. It has 18 orchestrations of one theme that remains the same throughout the piece, though the instruments playing it change. A variety of instruments are used throughout the composition containing the snare drum, flute, clarinet, E flat clarinet, bassoon, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, oboe d’amore, French horn, trombone, violin, cello, viola and the harp. Despite the use of numerous instruments, after listening to the beautiful and captivating melody it is quite evident that the woodwind and brass instruments overshadow the others.
Bolero has a controlled form of monotony that thrives in sedating and captivating the audience, it begins softly in the C major key and aims to end as loudly as humanly possible in E major. Ravel claims that the orchestral piece has no music, in fact he only added variations in the color while repeating the theme for a couple of minutes. By playing at an increasing pace Ravel has succeeded in making a simple piece sound unbelievable. Bolero is a rhythm (played by the snare drum), a tune and a crescendo.
Moreover, he has manipulated the audience by his duplication technique, so they overlook the parallel movement and focus on the high pitched instrument. The effect of the two instruments playing is like a feeling of pulse – it is there and it is vital, yet it can’t be felt as strongly compared to the high pitched instrument. Ravel builds the volume and tone very slowly but persistently throughout the piece. He fulfills his task of composing a complete orchestra that resonates with Spanish ballet. Critics claim that Ravel also took inspiration from dignified composers like Mozart and Schubert to compose.
The monumental piece in Ravels life: Bolero, begins with a snare drum that plays the same rhythm till the very end. Then the solo flute joins, after which the solo clarinet is played, both are from the lower range, after which the high range solo bassoon enters the composition before the introduction of the solo E flat clarinet. Following the E flat clarinet the oboe d’amore enters the show bringing the muted trumpet and flute as well. Likewise, these instruments join the composition respectively: solo tenor saxophone, solo soprano saxophone, French horn and celesta, quartet (composed of the clarinet and three double reeds), solo trombone and high woodwinds. After 12 of these variations, on the 13th variation the string instruments; violin, viola, cello and harp rise from the background and take the lead for the 5 variations that are left. Lastly, the trumpets join the orchestra intensifying the sound before the complete orchestra plays in the final moments prior to the abrupt ending leaving the audience wanting for more.
During the first 51 seconds of the piece only low range instruments are played before Ravel introduces high range ones. Since the melody remains the same Ravel uses a wise technique of doubling instruments in different keys to make it sound more interesting in order to persistently build a mysterious atmosphere without making it sound monotonous. It can also be noticed that the doubling increases when Ravel wants to create suspense and spike tension.
Bolero has many stylistic features that resemble periods before the 20th century, such as the Baroque, Classic and Romantic periods. Baroque period was famous for many stylistic features of music such as: polyphony, harmony and color. Ravel’s piece: Bolero uses two of these features evidently; harmony and color, he used the same melody throughout the composition and duplicated it to produce a complex timbre that is achieved by superimposing simpler timbres with the harmony and changing dynamics, this way his composition was monophonic because all instruments were in sync.
Ravel was celebrated for mixing classical form and jazz. Classical music is notorious for having a set style and structure while modern music gave more room to the composer so they could freely experiment and create melodies. Classical form had balanced melodies that were easy to listen to and Bolero was also a very melodic piece with a lot of repetition. Like the dynamics used in the classical era, Bolero also had a crescendo because the music kept getting louder till the end, when it ended abruptly. Moreover, the piece also features trumpets in the orchestra and strings like the violins, violas and cellos.
Like the musical style and form of the Romantic period, Bolero was a very melodic tune; based on one melody and rhythm that remains the same throughout the piece. It has a tremendous flow because there is no break or change in the melody, that one doesn’t anticipate the ending; rather listeners are astonished when the piece ends – and that is the only part where the snare drum changes its rhythm and follows that of the other instruments. The cymbals at the end give a majestic touch to the melody and signal the ending before the change of notes in E major when the orchestra is as loud as humanly possible. The harmony of the instruments enhance tune which sounds pleasingly melodic.
Critics that measure the extravagant piece in academic conventions criticize it for being extremely simple and argue that Ravel has composed pieces more complex than this and that it does not do justice to his style of composition. Most of Ravels work has numerous melodies filled with improvisations and rich in color like the Spanish melody Rhapsody Espagnole, but they say that this piece doesn’t show that side of Ravel who is often associated with impressionism like Debussy. Bolero was unlike the music of the 20th century where composers changed the way harmonies, melodies and rhythms were formed in older times. They aimed on introducing more freedom and emotion in music style and format. Most of the music made in the 20th century was sharp, hence it wasn’t appropriate for dance styles such as ballet, but Bolero did justice to it and proved to be a great success.
Ravel composed such a brilliant piece that it is played and esteemed highly till this day. Infact Ravel himself felt as if it was his best work and a splendid masterpiece. Bolero has been used by Ice dancers Torvill and Dean at their gold medal-winning performance at the Sarajevo winter Olympics in 1984, that made them the highest scoring figure skaters of all-time; scoring 12 perfect 6’s and 6 5.9’s. Additionally, a 4 minute excerpt of Bolero featured in the 1979 movie 10, when Bo Derek’s character seduces Dudley Moore’s character.
Bolero is a piece that is the embodiment of the phrase ‘less is more,’ it proves that everything great doesn’t necessarily have to be overly complicated. Additionally, it proves that by using a single melody and the right techniques, something so simple can be composed in a way to make it sound exhilarating, captivating and harmonic. It is evident that Bolero has left a big mark on the world and engraved Maurice Ravel’s name in the world’s greatest composers. Though many musical masterpieces were composed in Ravel’s period, it won’t be wrong to say that Bolero was, and is at the top because of its unique style that embodied various periods of time and delivered a melody so unforgettable, yet simple.
• Joseph Kerman Gary Tomlinson Book pdf
Stay tuned to Baaghi TV for updates and more news!