It's probably his most well-known piece of music. Ravel himself described it as “a crescendo for orchestra without music”.
Performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kazuki Yamada.
Ravel wrote Boléro in 1928 and it actually began life as music for a ballet, not as the standalone orchestral piece it has become. The scenario that was in Ravel’s mind was of a tavern in Spain, where people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. In response to the cheers to join in, a female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.
It’s a long and relentless crescendo with a single melody repeated over and over and an insistent rhythm played on the snare drum, played in this performance by the APO's Principal Percussion, Eric Renick.
Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large-scale ballets, suites for the ballet, and one-movement dance pieces (such as La valse). And aside from these pieces intended for staged performance, Ravel also had an interest in composing re-styled dances. These works include the suite of baroque dances Le Tombeau de Couperin. Boléro, although originally conceived as a staged dance, sits more in the latter category.
The story goes that while on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to a friend, 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."
The work’s premiere at the Paris Opera in 1928 was a roaring success, with the audience shouting, stamping and cheering – much to the composer’s surprise.
It’s said that at the premiere a woman in the audience was heard shouting “The madman! The madman!”. When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly replied “That lady…she understood”.
Programme note by Indra Hughes
Recorded by RNZ in Auckland Town Hall, 17 October 2019
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay