1928: Ravel: Bolero in C major, age 53

Mr. Peabody Says:

Ravel wanted it slow and sensuous. Toscanini wanted it much faster. He won, Ravel lost. But today conductors have reversed that, going to the slower tempo Ravel preferred. Why does the slower tempo work today? Because the top soloists are better, and they can pull of something more liquid, expressive and polished.

Read about it HERE: This composition by Maurice Ravel remains one of the most famous pieces of music ever written and was hugely popular the minute people heard it.

Celibidache, MPO (live, 1994)

Instrumentation:

  • 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, snare drum
  • harp, celesta
  • strings

Two themes:

There is an A theme and a B theme. He alternates them, using these two ideas over and over again, always with different instrumentation. His idea was to create something totally new, and it was just a huge experiment.

Theme A

  • Snare drum and double bass (the big string instrument) plus viola: The poor snare drum player and whoever is playing the bass line have to play those same notes for up to 20 minutes.
  • Flute solo
  • Clarinet solo

Theme B

  • Bassoon: Always one of the strangest looking instruments. It’s for the brooms in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and it’s “Grandfather” in “Peter and the Wolf”.
  • Sopranino clarinet: It’s a smaller and higher clarinet in Eb. It’s pitched a 4th higher than standard Bb clarinet. These odd-pitched clarinets are popular in places like Turkey.

Theme A

  • English horn, also known as cor anglais: It’s a lower pitched oboe, really.
  • Flute again with muted trumpet: The trumpet with the mute, together with the flute, is a unique sound. I really like it.

Theme B

  • Tenor saxophone:  It’s a late arrival in the orchestral instruments. You won’t find saxes of any kind in Beethoven. Even today people think of it more as a pop or jazz instrument.
  • Soprano sax: It’s an octave higher than tenor sax.

Theme A

  • Piccolo and celeste: What an usual combo. It sounds so cool.
  • Winds: oboes, English horn, clarinets: Now Ravel starts adding an interval, things like 3rds and 4ths below the melody.”

Theme B

  • Trombone: This is a killer trombone part, and you have to be really good to play it because it goes up to high Db, a very high note for an orchestral trombone player. Today top players use slide vibrato.
  • More winds, intervals, chords: Now he’s using triads and chords, very rich sound.

Theme A

  • Add the string section.
  • Even more players.

Theme B

  • Continuing with the larger group, and timpani: I have to go back sometime and find out when the timpani was added. It may be sooner. This is just unison and octaves.
  • Bigger, and with chords: Adding more weight, even fuller and richer.

Theme A

  • Huge, probably just one interval: This time unisons and octaves again, but it’s huge.

Theme B

  • Even bigger: And continuing with more and more players.
  • there is a bit of a variation in the theme: Suddenly for the first time he adds a bit to the theme.
  • Morphs to E major: This is a surprise because he never did it before.
  • Back to C major and it ends: Nothing to say, except you have trombone glisses, and it’s a racous musical celebration.

Popular for 91 years…

There has never been a time when the masses have not loved this piece. It is not only Ravel’s most famous composition but also the one that is instantly recognized. I doubt there are many people on planet earth who have not heard this.

9 thoughts on “1928: Ravel: Bolero in C major, age 53

  1. I think with the repetition, the faster tempo somehow is good to keep it flowing. I think there is enough variety for the “repetition” not to feel like boring.

  2. I really liked this song, at the beginning it felt like the song was waiting for something to come, then the major upbeat part to me, was what the beginning was waiting for, and then at the end I really liked how the song resolved itself without leaving the sense of longing that the beginning had.

    1. It’s a world-changing idea for sure. As far as I know no one else every thought of writing one basic tune and then having it repeat again and again, but always with different instruments and always building.

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