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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, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, and snare drums), celesta, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 23, 1930, Artur Rodzinski conducting
Boléro was created for the dancer Ida Rubinstein and her company, which introduced it at the Paris Opéra in November 1928. It might be noted that while Rubinstein had originally commissioned Ravel to orchestrate selections from Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia for the occasion, that task had much earlier been given by Albéniz to the Spanish conductor-composer Enrique Arbós, who was belatedly (in 1926-27) at work on it for his Madrid Symphony Orchestra. Thus, Ravel dropped the idea and instead wrote – very quickly – Boléro.
After the first concert performance, led by the composer himself – a succès at once d’estime and de scandale – Ravel issued the following “explanation” of his piece: “I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding as to my Boléro. It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and one should not suspect it of aiming at or achieving anything different from, or more than, it does achieve. Before the first performance [in 1928], I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting 17 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 in the plan and manner of execution. The themes are impersonal – folk tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind... I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listener to take it or leave it.”
The score is built on a single melody of two 16-bar phrases. Two snare drums present the basic 3/4 rhythm for four measures. Then the solo flute begins the melody proper, which is repeated by solo clarinet; the solo bassoon takes up the second phrase, then clarinet. After a change from C major to E major the piece – in which saxophones and a solo trombone are prominent – ends in shattering dissonance.
- Herbert Glass