"Boléro" is a one-movement orchestral piece by Maurice Ravel. Originally composed as a ballet, the piece, which premiered in 1928, is considered Ravel's most famous musical composition. Orenstein (1991), [ p. 99] ]

Before "Boléro", Ravel had composed large scale ballets (such as "Daphnis et Chloé", composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (such as the second orchestral version of "Ma Mère l'Oye", 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (such as "La Valse", 1906-1920). Apart from such compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes (the 1895 "Menuet" and the 1899 "Pavane") to his more mature works like "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (which takes the format of a dance suite).

"Boléro" epitomises Ravel's preoccupation with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement: the two piano concertos and the "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée" song cycle were the only compositions that followed "Boléro".


The work had its genesis in a commission from the dancer Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz' set of piano pieces, "Iberia".Orenstein (1991), [ p. 98] ] While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece. While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." This piece was initially called "Fandango", but its title was soon changed to "Boléro".

Premiere and early performances

The composition was a great success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs by Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Ernest Ansermet had originally been engaged to conduct the orchestra during its entire ballet season; however the orchestra refused to play under him.Mawer, [ p. 227] ] A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:

Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.
Ravel himself, however, had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.cite book
title=Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra
location=New York and London

"Boléro" became Ravel's most famous composition, much to the surprise of the composer, who had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. It is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story, at the premiere a woman shouted that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel smiled and remarked that she had understood the piece. [cite book
title=Music of the Great Composers: A Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music
location=Grand Rapids, MI

The piece was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself composed a version for two pianos, published in 1930.

The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on January 8, 1930. The recording session was attended by Ravel.citation
contribution=Syle and practice in the early recordings
title=The Cambridge Companion to Ravel
publisher=Cambridge University Press
] The very next day Ravel made his own recording for Polydor, conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra. That same year further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

The Toscanini affair

Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of "Boléro" with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1929.Ravel & Orenstein, [ pp. 590-591] ] The performance was a great success, bringing "shouts and cheers from the audience" according to a "New York Times" review leading one critic to declare that "it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro", and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into "almost an American national hero".

On May 4, 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra's European tour. Toscanini's tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signalled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini's gesture during the audience ovation. An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account Ravel said "It's too fast", to which Toscanini responded "It's the only way to save the work". [Mawer, [ p. 224] ] According to another report Ravel said "That's not my tempo". Toscanini replied "When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective", to which Ravel retorted "Then do not play it". [cite book
title=Marguerite Long: A Life in French Music, 1874-1966
publisher=Indiana University Press
] Four months later Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that "I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations" and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand". [English translation and facsimile of French original in cite book
authorlink=Harvey Sachs
title=Arturo Toscanini from 1915 to 1946: Art in the Shadow of Politics

Early popularity

The Toscanini affair became a "cause célèbre" and further increased "Boléro"'s fame. Other factors in the work's renown were the large number of early performances, gramophone records (including Ravel's own), transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture "Bolero" starring Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.


"Boléro" is written for a large orchestra consisting of two flutes, piccolo, two oboes (oboe 2 doubles oboe d'amore), cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, piccolo trumpet in D, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two saxophones (one sopranino and one tenor doubling on soprano — one of the first large ensemble pieces to employ the family), timpani, two snare drums, cymbals, tamtam, celesta, harp and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses).

(The sopranino saxophone called for in the instrumentation is a sopranino saxophone in F; whilst the ones of today are in E-flat. Today, both the soprano saxophone and the sopranino saxophone parts are commonly played on the B-flat soprano saxophone.)


"Boléro" is "Ravel's most straightforward composition in any medium". The music is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on one or more snare drums that continues throughout the piece:

On top of this rhythm is repeated a single theme, consisting of two eighteen-bar sections, each itself repeated twice. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the "expressive vocal melody trying to break free". [Mawer, [ pp. 223-224] ] Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo.

The melody is passed among different instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, oboe d'amore, trumpet, saxophone, horn, trombone and so on. While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onwards other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overtones of each note of the melody. The other significant "key doubling" involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these "key doublings", Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.

The accompaniment becomes gradually thicker and louder until the whole orchestra is playing at the very end. Just before the end (rehearsal number 18 in the score), there is a sudden change of key to E major, though C major is reestablished after just eight bars. Six bars from the end, the bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam make their first entry, and the trombones play raucous glissandi while the whole orchestra beats out the rhythm that has been played on the snare drum from the very first bar. Finally, the work descends from a dissonant D-flat chord to a C major chord. [ [ Bolero Ravel: Encyclopedia - Bolero Ravel ] ]

On April 8 2008, the "New York Times" published an article saying Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia in 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of "Boléro". [ [ FTD - Frontotemporal Dementia - Brain Disease - Pick's Disease - Creativity - New York Times ] ]

Tempo and duration

The tempo indication in the score is "Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai" ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"). In Ravel's own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted.Ravel & Orenstein, [ p. 541] ] Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72. Ravel's own recording from January 1930 starts at around 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60-63. Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds. Coppola's first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds. Ravel said in an interview with the "Daily Telegraph" that the piece lasts 17 minutes.

An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel's associate Pedro de Freitas-Branco, extending well over 18 minutes and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski's 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes. [cite album-notes
title=Leopold Stokowski conducts Dvorak, Sibelius and Ravel
format=CD liner
publisher=Music and Arts

At Coppola's first recording Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola's own report: [cite book
authorlink=Piero Coppola
title=Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 1922-1939
, quoted and translated in Ravel & Orenstein, [ p. 540]

Maurice Ravel [...] did not have confidence in me for the "Boléro". He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: "not so fast", he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.
Ravel's preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini's performance, as reported above. Toscanini's 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds.


Ravel was a stringent critic of his own work. During Boléro's composition, he said to Joaquin Nin that the work had "no form properly speaking, no development, no or almost no modulation". [citation
authorlink=Joaquin Nin
title=Comment est né le Boléro
journal=Revue Musicale
date=December 1938
, quoted and translated in Mawer, [ p. 219]
] In a newspaper interview with "The Daily Telegraph" in July 1931 he spoke about the work as follows:cite news
first=M. D.
title=M. Ravel discusses his own work: The Boléro explained
work=Daily Telegraph
reprinted in Ravel & Orenstein, [ p. 477] ]

It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of "orchestral tissue without music" — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.

Social critic Allan Bloom wrote in "The Closing of the American Mind" cite book
last = Bloom
first = Allan
authorlink = Allan Bloom
title = The closing of the American Mind
publisher = Simon & Schuster
year = 1987
chapter = Music
pages = 73
isbn = 0-671-47990-3
] that the reason "Bolero" is one of the few pieces of concert music to have broad appeal among the general public (i.e., non-classical music fans) is that its rhythm is the same as that of sexual intercourse. Bloom blamed much of rock music for providing the same repetitive rhythm.

Uses of "Boléro"

The melody of "Boléro" is well-known to many and it is often featured in different occasions in popular culture, including motion pictures, video games and popular music.

It was used in the movie "10" to great acclaim; the character played by Bo Derek kept restarting the music on a phonograph, while trying to seduce the character played by Dudley Moore. Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar used "Boléro" for a long sequence of the 1988 film "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown". Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto used the greater part of "Boléro" for a sequence in his "Fantasia"-like 1977 film "Allegro non troppo". The music is also used, to great effect, in the circus-ring climax to the 1995 movie, "Funny Bones".

"Boléro" was used in the "Doctor Who" episode "The Impossible Planet". It has also been used as background music in the Japanese anime series "Digimon" (seasons 1, 2; movies 1, 2). In the original "Digimon Adventure" movie, "Boléro" is the main motif in connection to the Agumon released and his evolution. It is also used partially in season 3 as one of the character's ringtones. It was used in a scene of the movie "The New Guy".

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto composed the piece "Bolerish", a 13-minute orchestral homage to Ravel's Bolero, for the Brian De Palma film "Femme Fatale". He also composed and performed a solo piano version of "Bolerish".

A rework of "Boléro" is found on Angélique Kidjo's album "Djin Djin", which starts mostly a cappella by means of multiple overdubbing before some building to an appropriate crescendo with some additional instrumentation. "Boléro" is integrated into Rufus Wainwright's song "Oh What a World". The melody also formed the basis of Patti Page's 1951 hit song "All My Love" (which was subtitled "Boléro").

The rock band The James Gang included a section of "Boléro" in their song "The Bomber" on the initial pressing of their 1970 album "James Gang Rides Again". However, Ravel's estate (which still owns copyright on the work) objected, and as a result the band edited that section out of the song on subsequent pressings of the album. The CD re-issue of "Rides Again" contains the full version of "The Bomber", with the "Boléro" section restored. Similarly, Ravel's estate has objected to Frank Zappa's treatment of "Boléro" on his 1991 live album "The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life", and has forced omission of the song from the European release of the album. English electronica group Goldfrapp have loosely used the melody in an instrumental song called "Felt Mountain" on their debut album "Felt Mountain". Deep Purple's famous track Child In Time (from In Rock) also features a section of "Boléro" just before Blackmore's guitar solo.

Ice dancers Torvill and Dean skated to "Boléro" in their gold medal-winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics, which is still the only ice dancing performance ever to have received a perfect score from every judge.

Manchester post-punk artist Eric Random performed a version of "Boléro" on his compilation "Subliminal 1980-1982". "Boléro" was at one point also used as the background music in Blue Man Group's stage show during the Twinkie Feast sketch. It has since been replaced by an unidentified Samba. It has also been used for the opening piece of the Broadway production "Blast!", a show originated from the drum corps group Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps.

"Boléro" is the title of a dialogue-heavy one-act play by David Ives about a conflict between a married couple. The action of the dialogue rises and falls in a rhythm similar to its namesake.

It has been used commonly in the Canadian show "Kenny Vs. Spenny".

In the 1956 movie "El Bolero de Raquel", Mexican comedian Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" dances to "Boléro" in his trademark comical manner with [ Elaine Bruce] .

"Boléro" was used as the background music on Ford car advertisements in 1991, which featured the Escort, Orion and Sierra on an ice-rink.

Marc Jacobs featured "Boléro" as a musical accompaniment to the runway show for his Spring 2008 Women's Collection.

Japanese acoustic guitar duo DEPAPEPE has covered the song in their album "DEPACLA ~depapepe plays the classics~".

Eccentric jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote a song called "Narrow Bolero" and played it as the first song of the set recorded as "Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live in Copenhagen". He was quoted in the liner notes as saying that it was one of, if not his favorite song. Narrow Bolero's melody has little to do with Ravel's original invention but it is clearly named for its snare ostinato and overall crescendo.

An abbreviated, four-minute rendition of "Boléro" originally appeared on Pink Martini's debut album Sympathique, but was removed in later printings of the album for unknown reasons.

Boléro is used in several episodes of the anime series Digimon Adventure.

In the George Raft movie "Bolero", playing a professional dancer and gigolo, featured the piece in the dramatic ending of the film. Released in 1934 it also starred Carole Lombard, fan-dancer Sally Rand and early appearances by William Frawley and Ray Milland.



*cite book
title=The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation
location=Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT

*cite book
title=Ravel: Man and Musician
publisher=Dover Publications
location=New York

*cite book
coauthors=Arbie Orenstein
title=A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews
location=Minneola, NY
publisher=Dover Publications

Further reading

last = Ivry
first = Benjamin
author-link = Benjamin Ivry
date = 2000
title = Maurice Ravel: a Life
place = New York
publisher = Welcome Rain
isbn = 1566491525
oclc = 44172900

External links

* [ Extensive discography, with timings]

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