COMPOSED: July through October 1928 on commission from Mme. Ida Rubinstein for her ballet troupe, which mounted the premiere at the Paris Opèra on November 22, 1928, with Walter Straram conducting.
WORLD PREMIERE: Ravel conducted the first concert performance in Paris with the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 11, 1930, but the North American premiere had already taken place two months earlier, on November 14, 1929, when Arturo Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony.
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— July 1930. Bernardino Molinari conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2017. Michael Tilson Thomas led the work as part of the SFS Opening Gala and All San Francisco concerts
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling oboe d'amore) and English horn, 2 clarinets, high clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 3 saxophones (sopranino, soprano, alto), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, 2 snare drums, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings.
DURATION: About 15 mins
THE BACKSTORY Before leaving for America for a four-month concert tour of the US and Canada (which included an appearance with the SFS on February 3 and 5, 1928), Ravel had promised Ida Rubinstein a new work for her ballet troupe. He was on vacation at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, just across the bay from his birthplace, and Gustave Samazeuilh, music critic of La Républicaine, was his guest. As the two were about to go out for their pre-breakfast swim, Ravel made a detour via his piano and played a melody. "Don't you think this theme has a certain insistent quality?" he asked. "I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." As soon as Ravel returned to Le Belvédère, his villa west of Paris, he began his new score. His first working title was Fandango, but realizing that the increase in speed and the sudden stops characteristic of that dance were contrary to his idea for the new piece, he retitled the piece Boléro.
Here is Ravel on Boléro:
I am particularly anxious that there should be no misunderstanding as to my Boléro. It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece . . . consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are impersonal—folk tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, the orchestral treatment is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity. . . . I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.
THE MUSIC How does Ravel arrange his long crescendo? He begins with solo instruments playing the melody and progresses to groups, often assembled in novel and effective ways. Much of the effect of the crescendo is vested in the accompaniment. A snare drummer taps out the bolero rhythm from beginning to end, but violas and cellos mark the beat too, and as soon as we have heard the first melody through once, Ravel begins to build the accompaniment. Often, the instrument that last played the melody joins the accompaniment team. How do you end such a piece? When a dynamic crescendo is no longer feasible, Ravel makes a huge harmonic leap. We have been at a C major standstill for fifteen minutes. Virtually without warning, we are suddenly plunged into E major. The shock destroys the piece, which collapses in upon itself as a mined tower collapses. Fair enough as a symbol, for Boléro was a radical challenge to the most basic assumptions of Western concert music.—Michael Steinberg
An earlier version of James M. Keller’s note for Alborada del gracioso appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Boléro Michael Tilson Thomas with the London Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks) | Yan Pascal Tortelier and the London Symphony Orchestra (Resonance) | Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon Eloquence)
Online: For more on Ravel’s 1928 US tour, visit sfsymphony.org/ravelexhibit
Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover) | A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press) | The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)