Maurice Ravel’s Boléro has a long, complex relationship with rock and roll, sometimes quoted explicitly (Jeff Beck’s “Beck’s Bolero”) other times through suggestion (Rush’s “Jacob’s Ladder”). In its thematic and rhythmic repetition and building orchestration there is a tension and release, an erotic energy inseparable from rock’s spark. This has often been perceived as a weakness of the work, even signaling cultural dissolution, to its detractors.* Ravel himself had misgivings about the piece, and almost immediately following its first performance equivocated on what exactly he had created.
I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding about this work. 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… The themes are altogether impersonal – folk-tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity… It is perhaps because of these peculiarities that no single composer likes the Boléro – and from their point of view they are quite right. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave it. — Maurice Ravel, London Daily Telegraph, July 1931.
This is a primordial punk/art statement, the “take it or leave it” a rejection of the academy, rock and roll’s essence, defying established thought but not without some churning within. It takes some mastery of a form to be able to do this, and so the statement is no easy out for the composer. His qualifications are not rationalizations or apologies, but a struggle with what he’s wrought. Boléro is a masterpiece, and like many orchestral works it is a shapeshifter. It tends towards 10 minutes in length or 19 — although Ravel preferred it to be in the 15- to 16-minute range. It is an arabesque, a sketch of Spain, a jazz age jewel, a childhood memory, a factory rhythm, an experiment, a riff monster, an impulse, an excercise, a piece of wizardly power. It is very occasionally, as it was originally, the score to a ballet. It is in its essence enigmatic. Even the better recorded version, and there are many out there, is a topic of fierce debate among aficionados. Many prefer Charles Munch’s RCA Living Stereo version from the 1950s, but at 13 minutes it quick-times the proceedings, undoubtedly for the consideration of the LP and perhaps influenced by the Toscanini performance that popularized the work in America, at a tempo that set the composer and conductor at odds. If it’s true, the story is great:
Ravel: That’s not my tempo.
Toscanini: When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective.
Ravel: Then do not play it.
Many longer versions are out there, however, and it’s probably hard to find one, fast or slow, that isn’t at least a little great, as it is apparently quite difficult not to knock this one out of the park if the conductor can keep the pace steady. For the sake of authenticity here is presented the 1930 version conducted by Ravel himself, or perhaps by Albert Wolff with Ravel present (this too is a topic of some debate) and approving. The provenance is sketchy, lost in the murk and mire of Ravel’s looming madness, the carelessness of record companies, and the vagaries of YouTube; however, this performance is most likely from 1930 with the Orchestre De L’Association Des Concerts Lamoureux.
* Allan Bloom famously called it the only classical piece of music young people liked, as puzzling “proof” — for who knows what that survey must have looked like — that everything was going to hell in the 1980s.
** Above painting of dancer/actress Ida Rubinstein, who commissioned Ravel to write the piece, by Valentin Serov (Wikipedia).