Listening – [Pt. II – Proj. 1] – Ravel’s Bolero
RAVEL’s one- movement orchestral piece ‘Bolero’ (1928)
French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was at first commissioned by Ida Rubenstein to write Bolero as a ballet movement. It has since become renowned as an orchestral movement. Ravel was in fact inspired by the Spanish dance Fandango (the original title of the piece before he renamed it). He set out to create a melody insistent and mesmerising enough to be repeated numerous times without any harmonic development. He very much achieved what he set out to do, by means of constantly changing instrumentation pairs and increasing excitement through sonority and dynamics. It was a roaring success at its Parisian premier in 1928 and has become his best-known piece.
Bolero is a structurally simple work written for a very large orchestra and consisting of just the one movement written in C Major and in a 3/4-time signature. Like a mantra a snare repeats one rhythm throughout the piece over which two overlapping ‘top’ melodies are heard, one of which is of a wider two octave range, syncopated and in the Phrygian. Every eighteen bars the melodies are passed to a different set of instruments all whilst the volume keeps increasing. The accompaniment remains simple throughout, mainly marking the root and the fifth. This ‘larger’ pattern is repeated eight times and there is a very brief key change to E Major before the last chords land back on the home key for the climactic conclusion.
I was obsessed with Ravel’s Bolero as a child. I used to play it over and over again, sometimes 20 times in a row. I think it’s the root of my fondness for writing in the Phrygian mode. I love the relentless repetitive ostinato, with the hypnotic snake-y melodies on top and the richer and richer instrumentation… ever increasing in intensity.
It would be hard to pick my favourite instrument pairings. It is the ever-changing character of the sound which keeps the piece interesting. Starting the first few iterations with just flute and then clarinet achieves an attention-grabbing honest vulnerability and nakedness which is pure beauty. When things move to the Bassoon and oboe d’amore we get an intimate and romantic flavour. Subsequently it almost gets jazzy when trumpet and tenor sax pairing comes in. I’m also fond of the trumpet/soprano sax section which immediately follows. I find the sax parts give a very sultry, exotic tinge to the melody. My ears prick up when the Celeste comes in and adds a new dimension, a bit of spike. As more and more instruments are added, and the volume increases it becomes incredibly powerful and overwhelming. The brief key change during the climax adds an extra twist and tension before returning to the home key. I think the piece is a triumph of orchestration and an innovative way of developing a very simple core into something immensely powerful and grand. I will never stop listening to and enjoying this piece of music.