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Ravel (1875-1937) - Bolero

What a strange character was Ravel! Apparently, his mother was the only person he ever loved, yet he was a warm-hearted friend. He was inhibited (some even say “repressed”), yet his output includes some of the sexiest music ever written, the Rapsodie Espagnole for one. He was sensitive to the poetic, yet fascinated by mechanical objects like clocks and toys. To a degree, these paradoxes came to a head in Boléro, which was written as a ballet for Ida Rubenstein. Set in a seedy tavern, a single dancer holds the floor. Gradually, others join in, and things get erotically competitive. Finally, as passions flare and the knives come out, the curtain falls. Ravel disliked this scenario, saying that he would have preferred one which accentuated the music's mechanical, rather than sexual potential. I wonder, did it ever cross his mind how closely related these two are? 

The development of music is largely founded on successive composers picking up ideas and building on them. Apart from Messiaen in the penultimate movement of Turangalîla-Symphonie (which lasts all of two minutes!), I can think of no-one who has taken the idea of Boléro and made anything out of it other than sheer tripe (I’m choosing my words carefully). Boléro, let's face it, is quintessential tripe. Over an invariant, asymmetrical four-bar snare drum rhythm, a single theme cycles relentlessly, the first half twice, then the second half twice, and then those four segments four times over. The tempo is rigid, the rhythm fixed, the tonality (C majeure, naturellement) utterly unwavering. Only the orchestration and amplitude change, the former ticking over precisely at the start of each segment, the latter increasing remorselessly. Finally, just as your shredded programme booklet falls apart, everything changes! The tune finally gets played right the way through, tempo and tonality shift, and the “heavy metal” move in for the kill. Tripe? Oh, yes indeed! But, it's also breathtakingly bold and original music, a “one-off” par excellence

Footnote: Following the second of the two performances for which this note was written, the newspaper reviewer declared, “Ravel’s Boléro was taken at a steadier tempo than usual, allowing intriguing inner harmonies to be heard and revealing this much-maligned work to be more interesting than commentators (including the Phil’s programme note writer) will admit.” The running time was exactly 14 minutes and 14 seconds (I know, because I recorded the performance), going on for a whole minute quicker than the first of the two performances. I would be intrigued to hear what Ravel might have thought of the observation regarding “intriguing inner harmonies”, but most of all I was surprised to discover that the work is “more interesting” than I am “prepared to admit”! Silly me­ – I thought I’d made a pretty good case for it!
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© Paul Serotsky
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