Ravel: Bolero

Born in the Basque country near the Franco-Spanish border, Ravel was the progeny of French-Swiss and Spanish parents. It was not a musical family but he was encouraged to pursue and develop his early musical talents. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and befriended Erik Satie, who was experimenting with new styles of harmonic progression. This greatly influenced Ravel, who often produced flamboyant, archaic compositions. He was, however, a perfectionist in the art of instrumentation, and enriched his work with deftly handled jazz rhythms and musical influences from around the world, reaching a dramatic climax with his celebrated work – “Bolero”.

In 1927 Ravel was commissioned to write a ballet and he incorporated the “bolero” dance in his score. It was choreographed by the famous Russian dancer, Nijinsky, and depicts a young sensual gypsy woman who launches into a slow, languid dance. Entranced by her movements the other café dancers join in, one by one, until every one is dancing, with the pace slowly quickening into a dramatic climax.

The British ice skaters Torvill and Dean won maximum points for their performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics, skating to Ravel’s “Bolero”, and it was used to erotic effect in the film 10.

Over a side drum tapping out the “Bolero” rhythm, and pizzicato strings, the solo flute enters introducing the theme that is to dominate the entire work. A clarinet repeats the theme and a bassoon introduces the development, which is languid and quite mournful. The mellow pitch of the oboe d’amore then takes the lead, and this is followed by the fairground organ sound, which is the result of several instruments simultaneously playing the melody in different keys. This builds up with more instruments joining in, and a jazz-like glissando effect from the trombone. A sudden change of key interrupts the flow, and gong strokes and cymbal clangs bring the piece to a dramatic, cacophonous conclusion! Ravel treated the orchestra as a machine, and this concert piece is a fine example of cogs, wheels, ratchets and spindles meshing together to create a whole. It is one of his most famous works, recognised world wide, and either revered or loathed! I think it is a majestic revelation of the power of music over our emotional limitations.