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Length: c. 14 minutes

About this Piece

Boléro grew out of an abortive project to orchestrate piano pieces from Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia to create a ballet, Fandango, for dancer Ida Rubinstein. Another composer had already secured the rights to orchestrate the Albéniz pieces, and Ravel didn’t have time to compose something new. During his summer holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ravel hit on the ingeniously simple idea of Boléro. 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 Opera, with Rubinstein in the main role of a Spanish dancer. Spain was not the only inspiration—Ravel hinted to his pupil and biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel that the relentless rhythm was inspired by the factory, putting the score into the context of other industrial compositions of the period, including Prokofiev’s The Steel Step (which Ravel had seen in Paris in 1927) and Arthur Honegger’s locomotive-inspired Pacific 231 (which premiered at the Opera in 1924). Ravel expressed his dissatisfaction with the “picturesque” Rubinstein production—which featured her dancing on a table in a bar—to his brother Édouard, who oversaw a factory-inspired production at the Opera in 1941. —John Mangum