Boléro (Ravel 1928) [15:01]

Maurice Ravel didn't think this was actually music, and considered it a trivial throwaway commission for a ballet piece which would be forgotten inside a few months because of its 'limited direction'.

No one seems to have been more surprised with its popularity than the composer, whose composition had to him 'an insistent quality', but little more. He didn't even think any orchestra would want to play it after the ballet was over. That ballet commission was fraught with indecision from the start. Initially to be a transcription of already existing piano pieces, Ravel was disheartened to find that copyright already existed on orchestral versions of the piano music, but despite that composer happily waiving his rights in favour of Ravel, the latter opted for one of his own works instead. Then, in a flash of inspiration he came up with a new melody and based the entire piece on it. His idea was to simply restate and repeat the melody line with the orchestra building as the music progressed, until it got louder and louder and more and more dense. Mercifully, the titled was changed from Fandango at the last second.

Not everyone was that thrilled with the music, though. Aside from Ravel - always his own worst critic - others felt the music was inherently uninteresting and occasionally made their own alterations to it, usually in respect of tempo. The composer preferred a steady beat throughout, but others disagreed. Notably, Toscanini gave its US premiere in 1929 in New York to rapturous applause and critical acclaim, but when Ravel appeared with him at the Paris Opéra the following year he refused to acknowledge the conductor during the applause. An angry exchange backstage revealed why; the conductor had not only upped the tempo but had done it progressively throughout. Ravel was displeased, particularly when Toscanini remarked that this was actually the only way to 'save the work'. Ravel seemingly retorted that if that were the case he would rather Toscanini would never conduct it again. Fortunately, Ravel conducted his own version in 1930 using the Lamoureux Orchestra, just to show what tempo it ought to be at. (It's not my favourite version, incidentally)

The composer wanted this piece to be repetitive, and it most certainly is. Some might even contend that it outstays its welcome by about half its length. Others maintain that it can actually finish up after about five minutes. I dunno. I like that quality in other music and see no reason why such it should not be applied to an orchestral work as well. One well-known newspaper even suggested that the reason why this composition was so repetitive and monolithic is because the composer was in the early stages of dementia and perhaps couldn't structure the scale of orchestral music in his mind any longer. The author cites the fact that the music doesn't change key (to E major from C) until bar #326 and even then it only stays there for eight bars before it returns briefly to the tonic and then - almost literally - collapses into a pile of dissonance on the finale.

Again, I dunno. The fact that it has been plodding away for over 300 bars in C and then rises into what is one magnificent key change makes it all the more surprising. To me it sounds very calculated and frankly, if this is what dementia does for you then I'll gladly have some of it soon please. Roses are red. Violets are blue. I'm Maurice Ravel. Er...roses are red.

I have revoiced a few sections of the music where the limitations of the device and the player have become all too apparent. This tune really shows the impressive speed and touch of the Mk V keyboard. The bolero beat is taken up by many instruments throughout its duration, following a pattern which requires 25 notes to be played in fast succession. Playing the required key to a click track with two index fingers (as opposed to as a proper keyboard technique) I managed to replicate the beat on nearly every required voice without any tapes or keys clicking, picking the cleanest - and best-timed - examples of each and looping them as necessary.

Instrumentation: Mellotron Mk V and M400 Playing

also sampled harp, snare drum, tambourine, timpani and TamTam

FLAC version here.