2017 Blossom Music Festival
August 19 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1936)
At a Glance
Ravel composed Boléro in 1928. It was first performed on November 22, 1928, by Ida Rubinstein’s company at the Paris Opéra. Rubinstein herself danced the main role; the choreography was by Bronislava Nijinska, with sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois; Walther Straram conducted. The North American premiere (without dancers) took place at an orchestral concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic, on November 14, 1929.
Boléro runs about 15 minutes in performance. Ravel scored it for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes (second doubling oboe d’amore) and english horn, 2 clarinets plus small clarinet in E flat and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, 3 saxophones (sopranino, soprano, tenor), timpani, percussion (2 snare drums, cymbals, tam-tam), celesta, harp, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Boléro in October 1930, conducted by music director Nikolai Sokoloff. It has performed this work on many occasions since.
About the Music
Ravel did not expect Boléro to be a hit. He was simply fulfilling an obligation to write a piece of music. He’d been asked by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein to write a new ballet with a Spanish theme. Her original request involved orchestrating some piano works by Isaac Albéniz, a relatively easier task than writing new music. But it turned out that the Albéniz pieces had already been arranged for orchestra — and that copyright restrictions wouldn’t allow another version. So Ravel struck out on his own, looking for something interesting but not too time-consuming. Eventually, he settled on the idea of an orchestration exercise, applied to a strangely meandering melody of his own devising, set against a steady and unchanging Spanish rhythm.
The mastery of Ravel is not in having thought of composing this exercise, but in the extraordinary consummate skill with which he infused a unique musical message into a simple formula and idea. A less sure hand would have built the variations across a gradually intensifying orchestral crescendo with either more frequent or fewer changes in instrumentation.
Somehow, Ravel managed just the right combination of stasis and change, keeping the piece in a very narrow region between monotony and wildfire. New instruments are added just when they are needed to keep the energy building, but never in an entirely predictable way or pace. In a good performance, the ending comes just as it should, at the peak of tension, releasing the audience to extended applause. In a great performance, the result can be mesmerizing, tantalizing, and palpably bone-tingling.
With the snare drum starting out from the very beginning, the melody is carried along according to a plan that looks something like the following list (while other instruments mirror and enhance the snare drum and its insistent rhythmic pattern):
1. solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
2. solo clarinet (also low in its range)
3. solo bassoon (high in its range)
4. solo E-flat clarinet (smaller and higher in pitch than the standard B-flat clarinet)
5. solo oboe d’amore (an instrument ranged, in pitch and tone, between the oboe and english horn)
6. muted trumpet and flute (the flute floats above, parallel to the trumpet’s line)
7. solo tenor saxophone (saxophones were unusual in an orchestra, and still are, but Ravel liked jazz and wanted an unusual sound here)
8. solo soprano saxophone (a small, straight, high-pitched saxophone)
9. horn and celesta (the bell-like sound of the celesta moves parallel to the horn’s line)
10. quartet of clarinet and three double reeds (this combination sounds somewhat like an organ)
11. solo trombone (including sliding passages)
12. high woodwinds (sounding a bit strident)
13. strings (the strings emerge to take the lead . . .)
From here to the end, everything continues building, eventually adding trumpets, more strings, and the entire orchestra including trombones and cymbals. Then, sometimes feeling unexpected, the ending comes quite suddenly.
Boléro was a sensational success at its premiere in Paris in 1928, for the music more than the choreography, and the piece quickly took on a life of its own in the concert hall (and radio and recordings and movies and more).
Ravel was astonished — and even perturbed — by its quick rise to popularity. In 1931, he stated that Boléro “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 ‘orchestration without music’ — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.” Just so, and it works magnificently. —Eric Sellen © 2017