piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings
Composed 1928. First performance: November 22, 1928. Orchestra of the Paris Opera cond. Walther Straram. Choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.
note by Katherine Baber
In retrospect, the Pavane only hinted at the tour de force of timbre that would be Boléro. Ravel took the score for a one-act ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Ida Rubinstein, as an excuse to see how much he could make out of orchestral tone color alone. Consisting only of repetitions of the same C major tune (the harmonic default setting of the Western tonal system) and over the same insistent rhythm, there is little else to listen for other than the mesmerizing effects created by the constant shifts among solo instruments and increasingly inventive combinations. Like it was for Rubinstein as a dancer, Boléro is also an endurance test for the musicians, as well as a challenge for the conductor in terms of pacing and balance as the piece unfolds in one long, slow crescendo. The bolero itself was a dance as widespread as the fandango and since the early eighteenth century it has been absorbed into the popular song and dance traditions of Andalusia, Castile, and Mallorca. While musical exoticism like that of Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Ravel is not about accuracy, these favorite works in the Western canon do at least capture the variety of musics heard throughout the various regions of Spain. And if you can’t make the flight to Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville, you can at least bask in the afterglow of Boléro.