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Boléro by the Numbers

October 1, 2018


Maurice Ravel French composer

“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. . . . I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.”—Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravels Boléro has hypnotized listeners since its inception in 1928. On October 16-18, Pablo Heras-Casado leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of this spellbinding work. What do we make of a piece that has pervaded pop culture for ninety-years running?

In early 1928, ballet impresario Ida Rubinstein impeccably timed her commissioning of Boléro. Ravel was just about to embark on an extensive twenty-five-city North American tour (including concerts with the San Francisco Symphony) that would last a long four months. He was intrigued by the offer, but upon returning to Europe, the overbooked composer thought he ought to slow down and relax. He and a friend hit a local French bayside town for some rest and rejuvenation. Just before a low-key pre-breakfast swim, Ravel sat down at a piano and casually punched out a no-frills melody. “Don’t you think this theme has a certain insistent quality?” he asked his holiday companion. “I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development.”

It didn’t take long for Ravel to turn that laid-back lick into one of the most timeless works in all of history. What makes it so appealing to so many for so long? The Boléro breakdown is basic. This fifteen-minute piece is driven by one simple, repetitive rhythm—played from start to finish by the snare drum. Interwoven between the march-like drum beats are two insistent musical themes, repeated over and over . . . and over and over again. The music grows not by diversification but by plain determination. The two unchanging themes never vary, they are simply passed around the orchestra, building intensity through sheer numbers. The music’s drive to the long-distance finish line is unapologetically incremental: Instead of a spirited sprint to the end, we go on a long, drawn-out musical journey set on cruise control. Suddenly, it crashes and burns via a bombastic shriek. And that’s all there is to it.

The math is simple: Boléro does a lot with very little. Because of this, some view Ravel as one of the grand masters of orchestration, whose cleverness brought us music that was precise, impactful, striking. Others view Ravel as an already-famous composer who nonchalantly played the numbers game and won by stretching nothing much to fifteen of the most famous minutes of music. Perhaps he’s a bit of both; it’s an art to play with time.

JEANETTE YU

 

BOLÉRO BEHIND-THE-SCENES

 

                                                    

SCI-FI SHOWS

The background music during the fight scene in the Star Trek episode “Amok Time” (first air date September 15, 1967) uses portions of the Boléro theme. On the planet Vulcan, Spock must battle Kirk in a fight to the death over Spock’s betrothed wife because she picked Kirk to champion her. Boléro is used in another science fiction show, Doctor Who, in an episode titled “The Impossible Planet.” It is played by a character on a research station that The Doctor and Rose Tyler are visiting during a montage sequence. In 2017, a version of the piece, titled Fauxlero (Boléro de Revel), was used in the first season of the Marvel Comics psychological thriller, Legion.

   

 

THE SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY CONNECTION

Two special guests of the SFS have recorded music based on Boléro: Grammy Award-winning singer Rufus Wainwright uses Boléro as a countermelody in his song, “Oh What A World,” while Beninoise singer Angélique Kidjo has created a vocal adaptation of Boléro called “Lonlon.” It is included on her Grammy Award-winning album, Djin Djin.

 

 

GOLD MEDAL GLORY

British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won Olympic Gold for their stunning Boléro routine at the 1984 Sarajevo games, scoring an unprecedented perfect 6.0 across the board for artistic merit. Their short, “skate-able” arrangement of Boléro ran eighteen seconds in excess of Olympics guidelines, so they kneeled at the start of the routine—as long as their blades did not touch the ice, those seconds would not count as official “skating time.” It worked!

 

IN ART & ON “RADIOLAB”

Fascinated by Boléro, biologist and painter Anne Adams created an elaborate visual rendition of the song on canvas, calling it Unraveling Boléro. Dr. Adams, who like Ravel was drawn to themes of repetition, painted one upright rectangular figure for each bar of Boléro. (For more, check out the “Radiolab” podcast at wnycstudios.org/story/unraveling-bolero.)

 

 

MOVIE MOMENTS

In the 1979 movie 10, Bo Derek’s character mentions Ravel’s Boléro in a rather . . . provocative  . . . question. A four-minute excerpt is also used in the movie soundtrack. This film quotation significantly increased sales of recordings of the work, which is still under copyright in many countries.