Maurice Ravel is one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century. He created numerous fabulous works which have inspired many people of art. Of course, Bolero is one of his most famous works. Interestingly, this one-movement orchestral piece is often seen as simplistic (Zank 41).
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Some even claim that this notoriety prevented many researchers from analyzing this piece. Nonetheless, people have acknowledged beauty and great importance of this magnificent work. Ironically, this piece is cherished for its simple and, at the same time, so unique form. Critics have praised the work for its brilliant simple form and great passion.
It is known that Ravel wrote this piece for the Russian ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein who asked him to create “an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia” (Orenstein 98). Ravel agreed to help his old friend. However, soon he changed his mind and decided to create a brand new work. One morning he played the new melody with one finger. Once he played it he said to one of his friends:
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 as I can. (Orenstein 98)
These words can be regarded as an answer to those who accuses the great master of creating too simplistic piece. Ravel intended to take a simple melody to develop it in a very special manner. He only wanted to add instruments to develop the piece into a great orchestral work gradually. He managed to achieve his goal.
The piece is based on a single ostinato rhythm which does not change throughout the work. The rhythm is performed on the snare drum. The piece is played with a variety of instruments (Schwarm 337). However, woodwind and brass instruments prevail. Thus, the composer makes use of the following instruments in the specific order: solo flute, solo clarinet, solo bassoon, solo E-flat clarinet, solo oboe d’amore, solo tenor saxophone, solo soprano saxophone, French horn, trombone. Ravel also uses string instruments cellos, violas, harps, violins.
The melody starts in the instruments’ low range and after minute 0:51 of the piece the range of the instruments used becomes higher. The melody is developed with the help of instruments’ doubling in different keys. There are several doublings throughout the piece. It gradually increases, which creates a great atmosphere of tension and even suspense. During minute 05:46 the melody is performed at high pitch. At the end of the piece the entire orchestra is performing at high pitch and the melody stops abruptly.
It is necessary to note that the piece stands out from the rest of Ravel’s works which are often rich in improvisations and variety of melodies. The composer created numerous magnificent works which were positively accepted by people (Zank 72). It can be interesting to compare Bolero with another piece based on Spanish melodies.
For instance, Rapsodie espagnole differs considerably from the later Bolero. The former is rich in color. The piece is characterized by the variety of instruments and variety of melodies, whereas Bolero is based on a single melody which is gradually enriched by doubling.
However, these two pieces have one important trait in common. Thus, the two works are based on folk Spanish melodies, though none of the melodies is revealed. The composer did not use specific folk melodies. He produced new music patterns which created the atmosphere of a Spanish fest where Spanish music could be heard.
It is also important to stress that Bolero is one of the composer’s last works. It was created at the time when he found out about his poor health conditions. Bolero is also one of the most sophisticated works as the composer had already polished his unique style by 1930s. Admittedly, only a great, talented and skillful master could create a piece based on a single melody.
Many people did not understand the piece as they believed the melody was a great step backwards for the composer (Zank 68). However, those people tried to see the piece in terms of academic conventions. However, Ravel’s Bolero cannot be understood and should not be analyzed in terms of such conventions.
This piece should be regarded as a brilliant interpretation of classic through passionate dances. It is important to remember that Ravel had flamenco in mind when he was working on one of his most beautiful works (Mawer 156). Passionate dances in Andalusia inspired the master. In fact, flamenco tunes influenced Ravel’s work greatly.
As has been mentioned above, Bolero was created as a dancing piece for the ballet dancer. Ravel tried to find new ways to develop dance moves and melodies. He chose one of the most passionate and quite difficult dances to achieve his goal. It is necessary to state that he succeeded as he managed to create a beautiful and passionate piece. Admittedly, the melody creates the mysterious atmosphere of the enigmatic dance.
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It is necessary to add that not only Spanish melodies influenced the piece. Critics mention other sources of inspiration. Thus, researchers claim that Ravel was influenced by such great composers as Mozart, Schubert and Rimsky-Korsakov (Schwarm 336). As has been mentioned above, Bolero was one of the most criticized works in the first part of the twentieth century.
However, critics simply revealed their disapproval without being consistent in arguments. In other words, each critic tried to prove that the work was bad and provided arguments, which were praised by another critic who, in his/her turn, criticized something else in the piece. For instance, some said it was too academic, while others argued that the piece was too unconventional. Some accused him of rejecting new forms. However, pro-Ravel critics claimed that
Ravel is as alive to the new influences as any. That he does not succumb to them is no proof of weakness, but of strength and will power far beyond the ordinary. (qtd. in Mawer 236)
However, no matter what critics may have said the work has become one of the most wonderful pieces. Bolero has been used in numerous ballets, films, ice-dances, etc. For instance, this wonderful piece inspired more than 20 recordings in the 1930s, it has been used in film making (it is associated with films produced in 1934, 1941, 1980, 2003, 2008), it was also used for a brilliant ice-dance by the winners of the 1984 Winter Olympics (Mawer 155). Of course, the piece has been extensively used in ballet.
In conclusion, it is possible to state that Ravel was one of the most influential composers in the twentieth century. His Bolero is still regarded as one of the most brilliant works of the epoch. This wonderful piece is unique as only really great composers risk using a ‘simplistic’ pattern. However, Ravel proved that a really talented composer could develop a single melody into a rich and unforgettable music masterpiece.
Mawer, Deborah. The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Orenstein, Arbie. Ravel: Man and Musician. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
Schwarm, Betsy. Classical Music Insights: Understanding and Enjoying Great Music. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2011. Print.
Zank, Stephen. Irony and Sound: The Music of Maurice Ravel. Rochester, NY: University Rochester Press, 2009. Print.