A listeners guide to Bolero

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Bolero has been one of the most recognisable pieces for orchestra since its premiere in the 1928 at the Paris Opera, as a ballet for the famous dancer Ida Rubenstein.

In a nutshell

Ravel created Bolero to experiment with what can be achieved when working with very limited parameters in music.

Essentially, the melody and rhythm does not change all the way through. ‘Don’t you think this theme has a certain insistent quality?’ Ravel himself said. ‘I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.’

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So how does Ravel keep the audience’s attention, despite endless repetition?

  • Using crescendo (gradual progression from soft to loud)
  • Building the texture (the layering of the instruments) – it starts with just a few instruments, with more and more added gradually.
  • An abrupt key change (to E major) towards the end jolts the audience out of their hypnotic state

Ravel also continually passes the melody between instruments – almost every instrument in the orchestra has a turn at playing the theme (which is actually two melodies, which weave in and out of each other). In chronological order the melody is played by:

  • flute
  • clarinet
  • bassoon
  • E flat clarinet
  • solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
  • flute and muted trumpet
  • tenor saxophone (not a usual inclusion in the orchestra but Ravel was a jazz fan)
  • soprano saxophone
  • French horn and celeste
  • woodwinds
  • trombone
  • woodwinds
  • then over to violins
  • then the full orchestra

Ravel said: ‘There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution…I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.’

Bolero-spotting (pop culture)

While Bolero has been a concert hall favourite and well known to music lovers beyond the classical scene for decades, its popularity was truly cemented after its inclusion in the hit movie 10 and as the accompanying music to Torvill and Dean’s gold medal-winning dance at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

It also appears in the cult classic Italian short film, Allegro Non Troppo, created as a parody of Disney’s Fantasia. Bolero accompanies a (rather bizarre) sequence involving water at the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle (left behind by aliens), coming to life and going through evolution similar to the history of mankind.

Allegro non troppo – Bolero (1977) by Cartoonzof2006

Its success was also buoyed by the advent of the gramophone, with the first recording being made in 1930.