Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element of a beloved piece that you can use as a port of entry. Up next? Ravel’s ability to turn relentless repetition into ebullient excitement thanks to, in part, one really, really long crescendo.

Ida Rubinstein

For decades, Boléro has topped “most-performed pieces” lists around the globe. It’s also carved a place in pop culture, nabbing screen time in commercials, feature films, cartoons, and even the Olympic Games. It’s also based on a single rhythmic cell and less than a minute’s worth of melody…

While we often hear it as a standalone orchestral piece, Boléro was initially conceived as a ballet. Dancer Ida Rubinstein approached Ravel in 1928 looking for a piece with Spanish flair and the composer found his inspiration in the bolero, an eighteenth-century Spanish dance in 3/4 time.

The starting point for the piece was a traditional rhythm which Ravel latched onto somewhat obsessively: it serves as the basis for the entire piece and is repeated a whopping 169 times.

On top of this insistent ostinato rhythm, Ravel adds another layer of repetition in the form of a melody, in his own words, “a theme lasting less than a minute, but which I’ll repeat for up to 18 minutes.”

The piece starts as delicately as possible. First, we hear the rhythm, a faint pianissimo in the snare drum above pizzicato (plucked) strings. Then, the flute plays the first iteration of the melody, a sinewy, jazz-infused theme in two parts. At the end of the excerpt below, listen to how the flute picks up the snare drum’s patter. Right from the beginning, Ravel shows us that the gentle rhythm is far more than a simple warm-up: it’s the main act.

Boléro is perhaps best read as experiment, an exercise in which Ravel sought to determine just how far he could take a single concept (though some modern scholars have read it a manifestation of the aging composer’s Alzheimer’s disease…). And he was protective of his project, infamously arguing with conductors who tried to speed through performances of the piece. One legendary example involves the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. When Ravel heard Toscanini lead the piece at double speed, he didn’t take it well and refused to stand and be acknowledged by the crowd after the performance. He even told Toscanini that if he didn’t want to play Boléro at the written tempo, that he shouldn’t bother playing it at all! The very public spat between the two respected musicians went on to develop its own lore, perhaps even contributing to the piece’s growing popularity in the years that followed.

“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”

Gradual is the key word to keep in mind as you listen to Ravel’s experiment. As he takes us through the iterations of the melody, everything builds. Ravel slowly ramps up the volume, progressing from a faint pianissimo to a blaring fortissimo. In the first third of the piece or so, the melody passes from solo instrument to solo instrument, moving from low flute through muted trumpet and piercing E-flat clarinet. Once Ravel has worked his way through the diverse set of individual timbres, he begins to blend, scoring the melody (and the rhythmic ostinato!) for groups of instruments. These small ensembles build as well, expanding from trios to larger sets, gradually looping in more powerful sonorities.

Let’s jump in about halfway through to hear what that sounds like. Listen to how different the energy is in the excerpt below compared to the opening measures we heard earlier. The rhythm and melody remain the same but nearly everything else is different: Ravel has amped up the volume, horns have joined the snare drum’s rhythmic crusade, and the melody now passes through groups of wind instruments.

Tensions are high, and we’re only halfway through! After over ten minutes of repetition and gradual build, we are eagerly anticipating arrival, even if it’s still unclear where exactly Ravel is going with all of this.

After over a quarter of an hour of steady repetition and slowly rising tension, Ravel’s experiment comes to a crashing conclusion. The high-voltage, high-volume final iteration of the melody careens wildly into a closing few measures that hysterically repeat even smaller melodic and rhythmic fragments until the orchestra seems to almost collapse into itself. It’s a moment that only makes full sense when heard in context, when you, too, can experience the exhaustion and relief alongside the performers.

“My Boléro should bear the epigraph: “Get this into your head…”

So the next time you hear Boléro in the background of a TV show, or see it on a concert program, think of Ravel’s experiment and marvel at how he managed do so much with so little. Or just let the slow burn take over and lean into the hypnotic experience. Just try not to groan when the melody pops up in the back of your mind hours, days, or weeks afterwards…

August 11th, 2019, 12 noon (EDT)

1977. Maya Plisetskaya hypnotizes in Béjart’s choreography to Ravel’s Boléro. A performance rife with tension, symbolism, and exploration.

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