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Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = oboe d’amore), English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, and snare drums), celesta, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 15, 1930, Karl Krueger conducting
Bolero grew out of an abortive project to orchestrate piano pieces from Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia to create a ballet, Fandango, for dancer Ida Rubinstein. The Albéniz pieces were unavailable because another composer had already secured the rights to orchestrate them, and since Ravel had only planned on orchestrating, there really wasn’t time for him to compose something new. During his summer holiday in St.-Jean-de-Luz, Ravel hit on the ingeniously simple idea of Bolero. He created a single theme, introduced by the flute over a simple rhythmic pattern, and repeated it over and over, in different – and brilliant – instrumental combinations, gradually increasing the dynamic level from pianissimo to fortissimo over the work’s 15-minute span.
With the task of composition drastically minimized, Ravel completed the work in time for its November 1928 premiere at the Paris Opéra, with Rubinstein in the main role of a Spanish dancer. Spain was not the only inspiration – Ravel hinted to his pupil and biographer Roland-Manuel that the relentless rhythm was inspired by the factory, putting the score into the context of other industrial ballets of the period, including Prokofiev’s The Steel Step (which Ravel had seen in Paris in 1927) and such Soviet works as Shostakovich’s The Bolt and Mosolov’s Steel. In fact, Ravel was unhappy about what he described as the “picturesque” Rubinstein production, which featured her dancing on a table in a bar. He expressed his dissatisfaction to his brother Edouard, who oversaw a factory-inspired production at the Opéra in 1941.
— John Mangum