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Ida Rubinstein commissioned Boléro (1922)
Ida Rubinstein commissioned Boléro (1922)

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral piece by the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). Originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, the piece, which premiered in 1928, is Ravel's most famous musical composition.[1]

Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large-scale ballets (such as Daphnis et Chloé, composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (e.g. the second orchestral version of Ma mère l'oye, 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (for example La valse, 1906–1920). Apart from these compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes—the 1895 Menuet and the 1899 Pavane—to his more mature works such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, which takes the format of a dance suite.

Boléro epitomizes Ravel's preoccupation with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement. The two piano concertos and the song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée were the only completed compositions that followed Boléro.


Score for Boléro (67 pages)

The work had its genesis in a commission from the dancer Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz's set of piano pieces, Iberia. While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Fernández Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However, Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece based on the musical form and Spanish dance called bolero.[2]

While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, 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."[2] It has been suggested that this unusual interest in repetition was caused by the onset of progressive aphasia.[3]

According to Idries Shah, the main theme is adapted from a melody composed for and used in Sufi training.[4]

Premiere and early performances

The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 22 November 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs and scenario by Alexandre Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Originally, Ernest Ansermet had been engaged to conduct during the entire ballet season, but the musicians refused to play under him.[5] A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:[5]

Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.

However, Ravel had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.[6]

Boléro became Ravel's most famous composition, much to the surprise of the composer, who had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it.[1] It is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story from the premiere performance, a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel is said to have remarked that she had understood the piece.[7]

The piece was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and later, Ravel arranged a version for two pianos, published in 1930.

The first recording was made by Piero Coppolain Paris[citation needed] for the Gramophone Company on 8 January 1930. The recording session was attended by Ravel.[8] The following day, Ravel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in his own recording for Polydor.[9] That same year, further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.[10]


Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the American premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on 14 November 1929.[11] The performance was a great success, bringing "shouts and cheers from the audience" according to a New York Times review, leading one critic to declare that "it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro", and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into "almost an American national hero".[11]

On 4 May 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra's European tour. Toscanini's tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signaled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini's gesture during the audience ovation.[12] An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account, Ravel said, "It's too fast", to which Toscanini responded, "You don't know anything about your own music. It's the only way to save the work".[13] According to another report, Ravel said, "That's not my tempo". Toscanini replied, "When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective", to which Ravel retorted, "Then do not play it".[14] Four months later, Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that "I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations" and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, an invitation that was declined.[15]

Early popularity

The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased the fame of Boléro.[1] Other factors in the work's renown were the large number of early performances, gramophone records, including Ravel's own, transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture Bolero starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.[1]


Boléro is written for a large orchestra consisting of:

The instrumentation calls for a sopranino saxophone in F, which never existed (modern sopraninos are in E). At the first performance, both the sopranino and soprano saxophone parts were played on the B soprano saxophone, a tradition that continues to this day.[16]


Boléro is "Ravel's most straightforward composition in any medium".[6] The music is in C major, 3
, beginning pianissimo and rising in a continuous crescendo to fortissimo possibile (as loud as possible). It is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played 169 times[17] on one or more snare drums that remains constant throughout the piece:

Cellule rythmique boléro.jpg

On top of this rhythm two melodies are heard, each of 18 bars' duration, and each played twice alternately. The first melody is diatonic, the second melody introduces more jazz-influenced elements, with syncopation and flattened notes (technically it is mostly in the Phrygian mode). The first melody descends through one octave, the second melody descends through two octaves. The bass line and accompaniment are initially played on pizzicato strings, mainly using rudimentary tonic and dominant notes. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the "expressive vocal melody trying to break free".[18] Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo. Both themes are repeated a total of eight times. At the climax, the first theme is repeated a ninth time, then the second theme takes over and breaks briefly into a new tune in E major before finally returning to the tonic key of C major.

The melody is passed among different instruments: 1) flute, 2) clarinet, 3) bassoon, 4) E clarinet, 5) oboe d'amore, 6) trumpet, and flute (latter is not heard clearly and in higher octave than the first part), 7) tenor saxophone, 8) soprano saxophone, 9) horn, piccolos and celesta; 10) oboe, English horn and clarinet; 11) trombone, 12) some of the wind instruments, 13) first violins and some wind instruments, 14) first and second violins together with some wind instruments, 15) violins and some of the wind instruments, 16) some instruments in the orchestra, 17) and finally most, but not all of the instruments in the orchestra (with bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam). While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onward other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the first, second, third, and fourth overtones of each note of the melody (however, the "G major" is 2 cents flat, and the "E major" is 14 cents sharp). The other significant "key doubling" involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these "key doublings", Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.

The following table shows how the composition is played by what instruments (in order):[19]

Part Instruments that follow the...
...snare drum's rhythm ...melody ...three-beat quarter/eighth-note rhythm
Intro 1st snare drum (pp) 1st flute (pp) violas, cellos (both in pizz., pp)
1st 2nd flute (pp) 1st clarinet (p) violas, cellos
2nd 1st flute (p, also snare drum) 1st bassoon (mp) harp, violas, and cellos (all p)
3rd 2nd flute E clarinet (p) harp, violas, and cellos
4th bassoons oboe d'amore (mp) 2nd violins (pizz.), violas, cellos, and double bass (pizz.)
5th 1st horn 1st flute (pp), and 1st trumpet (mp, con sord.) 1st violins (pizz.), violas, cellos, and double bass
6th 2nd trumpet (mp, con sord.) tenor saxophone (mp, espressivo, vibrato) flutes, 2nd violins, cellos, and double bass (all mp)
1st clarinet (interchanged from 2nd flute, last four bars)
7th 1st trumpet sopranino saxophone (original score) / soprano saxophone (either instrument, mp, espressivo, vibrato) oboes, cor anglais, 1st violins, violas, cellos, and double bass
soprano saxophone (original score, interchanged from sopranino saxophone, mp, last four bars)
8th 1st flute (mp, same with snare drum), 2nd horn (mf) 2 piccolos (pp), 1st horn (mf), and celesta (p) bass clarinet, bassoons, harp, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, and double bass
9th 4th horn, 3rd trumpet (con sord.), 2nd violins, and violas (all mf) 1st oboe, oboe d'amore, cor anglais, and clarinets (all mf) bass clarinet, bassoons, 1st/2nd trumpets (con sord.), harp, 1st violins, cellos, and double bass
10th 1st flute, 2nd horn, and violas


1st trombone (mf, sostenuto) clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, harp, 2nd violins, cellos, and double bass
11th 4th horn, 1st trumpet (senza sord.), and 2nd violins (arco, all f, also snare drum) piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, and tenor saxophone (all f) bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, harp, 1st violins, violas (pizz.), cello, double bass (all f)
12th 1st/2nd horns flutes, piccolo, oboes, clarinets, and 1st violins (arco) 1st oboe, clarinets (both at first two bars), and below
bassoons, contrabassoon, 3rd/4th horns, timpani, 2nd violins (pizz.), violas, cellos, double bass
13th 3rd/4th horns flutes, piccolo, oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, tenor saxophone, and 1st/2nd violins (2nd violins arco), 1st oboe, clarinets (both at first two bars), and below
bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, 1st/2nd horns, sopranino saxophone, timpani, harp, violas, cellos, and double bass
14th 1st/2nd horns flutes, oboes, cor anglais, 1st trumpet, and 1st/2nd violins flutes, oboes (first two bars), and below
clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, 3rd/4th horns, sopranino saxophone, tenor saxophone, 1st/2nd trombone, tuba, timpani, harp, viola, cello, double bass
bass clarinet, 4th horn (interchanged from 1st trumpet), and violas (arco, interchanged from 2nd violins, last four bars) Above, and 2nd violins (pizz., interchanged from violas, last four bars)
15th 1st–4th horns flutes, piccolo, oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, sopranino saxophone, 1st trombone (sostenuto), 1st/2nd violins, violas, and cellos (2nd violins, cellos in arco) 2nd violins and cellos (both pizz., first two bars), and below
bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, trumpets (2nd/3rd trumpets senza sord.), 2nd/3rd trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and double bass (arco)
bass clarinet, tenor saxophone (last four bars, tenor interchanged from sopranino)
16th flutes, piccolo (first two bars), and below flutes, piccolo, D piccolo trumpet, C trumpets, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and 1st violins (all ff) C trumpets (first two bars), and below (ff)
oboes, clarinets, horns, 2nd violins, violas, cellos (all strings in pizz.), and a second snare drum playing throughout (all ff) bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and double bass (all ff)
17th flutes, piccolo (first two bars), and below. flutes, piccolo, D piccolo trumpet, C trumpets, 1st trombone (ff possibile), soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and 1st violins C trumpets, 1st trombone (first two bars), and below
oboes, clarinets, horns, 2nd violins, violas, and cellos (all strings in arco) bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, 2nd/3rd trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and double bass
Finale (last 5 bars) flutes, piccolo, horns, D piccolo trumpet, C trumpets, 1st/2nd violins, violas, and cellos Glissando: trombones, sopranino saxophone, and tenor saxophone (no glissando note on the saxophones) oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, tuba, timpani, harp, and double bass; together with the bass drum, cymbals, and tam-tam

The accompaniment becomes gradually thicker and louder until the whole orchestra is playing at the very end. Just before the end (rehearsal number 18 in the score), there is a sudden change of key to E major, although C major is reestablished after just eight bars. Six bars from the end, the bass drum, cymbals, and tam-tam make their first entry, and the trombones play raucous glissandi while the whole orchestra beats out the rhythm that has been played on the snare drum from the very first bar. Finally, the work descends from a dissonant B minor over F minor chord to a C major chord.

Tempo and duration

The tempo indication in the score is Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"). In Ravel's own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted.[20] Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72.[20] Ravel's own recording from January 1930 starts at approximately 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60–63.[8] Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds.[20] Coppola's first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds.[20] Ravel said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that the piece lasts 17 minutes.[21]

An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel's associate Pedro de Freitas Branco, extending well beyond 18 minutes[20] and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski's 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes.[22] In May 1994, with the Munich Philharmonic on tour in Cologne, conductor Sergiu Celibidache at the age of 82 gave a performance that lasted 17 minutes and 53 seconds, perhaps a record in the modern era.[citation needed]

At Coppola's first recording, Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola's own report:[23]

Maurice Ravel... did not have confidence in me for the Boléro. He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: "not so fast", he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.

Ravel's preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini's performance, as reported above. Toscanini's 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds.[11]


Ravel was a stringent critic of his own work. During the composition of Boléro, he said to Joaquín Nin that the work had "no form, properly speaking, no development, no or almost no modulation".[24] In a newspaper interview with The Daily Telegraph in July 1931 he spoke about the work as follows:[21]

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. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of "orchestral tissue without music"—of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.

In 1934, in his book Music Ho!, Constant Lambert wrote: "There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La valse and towards the beginning of Boléro)."[25]

Literary critic Allan Bloom commented in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, "Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel's Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them."[26]

In a 2011 article for the Cambridge Quarterly, Michael Lanford noted that "throughout his life, Maurice Ravel was captivated by the act of creation outlined in Edgar Allan Poe's Philosophy of Composition." Since, in his words, Boléro "[defies] traditional methods of musical analysis owing to its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic repetitiveness," he offers an analysis of Boléro that "corresponds to Ravel's documented reflections on the creative process and the aesthetic precepts outlined in Poe's Philosophy of Composition."[27] Lanford also contends that Boléro was quite possibly a deeply personal work for Ravel. As evidence, Lanford cites Ravel's admissions that the rhythms of Boléro were inspired by the machines of his father's factory and melodic materials came from a berceuse sung to Ravel at nighttime by his mother.[28] Lanford also proposes that Boléro is imbued with tragedy, observing that the snare drum "dehumanizes one of the most sensuously connotative aspects of the bolero",[29] "instruments with the capacity for melodic expression mimic the machinery,"[30] and the Boléro melody consistently ends with a descending tetrachord.[31]

In popular culture

The piece gained new attention after it was prominently featured in the 1979 romantic comedy 10, costarring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek. This resulted in massive sales, generated an estimated $1 million in royalties and briefly made Ravel the best-selling classical composer 40 years after his death.[32]

The ice dancing pair Torvill and Dean danced to a six-minute version of the work in winning the gold medal in ice dancing at the 1984 Winter Olympics, receiving perfect 6.0s for artistic merit.[33]

The eight-minute short film Le batteur du Boléro (1992) by Patrice Leconte concentrates on the drummer, played by Jacques Villeret, and the problems of his musical part. The film was screened out of competition at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.[34][35]

This song played during the torch-lighting ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.[36]

Public domain

This piece's copyright expired on 1 May 2016 for many countries, but not worldwide.[37]

The work is public domain in Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and many others where the copyright term is "Life + 50 years". It is also public domain in the European Union (where the term is Life + 70 years). In the United States, the work remains under copyright until 1 January 2025 as it was first published in 1929 with the prescribed copyright notice.[38][better source needed] The last remaining rights owner, Evelyne Pen de Castel, has entered a number of claims that the work was in fact co-composed with the designer Alexandre Benois.[39] The effect would be to extend the copyright until 2039. The claims have been rejected repeatedly by French courts and the French authors society Sacem.



  1. ^ a b c d Orenstein 1991, p. 99.
  2. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 98.
  3. ^ "Unraveling Bolero". Radiolab (Podcast). WNYC. 22 May 2018. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  4. ^ The Sufis, Idries Shah, Doubleday, 1964, p.175 (paperback), or pg. 155 (hardbound)
  5. ^ a b Mawer 2006, p. 227.
  6. ^ a b Lee 2002, p. 329.
  7. ^ Kavanaugh 1996, p. 56.
  8. ^ a b Woodley 2000, pp. 236–237.
  9. ^ Woodley 2000, p. 237.
  10. ^ Woodley 2000, p. 238.
  11. ^ a b c Orenstein 2003, pp. 590–591.
  12. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 98–99.
  13. ^ Mawer 2006, p. 224.
  14. ^ Dunoyer 1993, p. 97.
  15. ^ Sachs 1987, p. 50.
  16. ^ "Marcel Mule interview". (Marcel Mule was the saxophonist at the premiere)
  17. ^ Philip 2018, p. 615.
  18. ^ Mawer 2006, pp. 223–224.
  19. ^ Explication of the entire work, indicating the instruments heard in the recording as they are played,
  20. ^ a b c d e Orenstein 2003, p. 541.
  21. ^ a b Calvocoressi, Michel-Dimitri (11 July 1931). "M. Ravel discusses his own work: The Boléro explained". The Daily Telegraph. Reprinted in Orenstein 2003, p. 477.
  22. ^ Leopold Stokowski conducts Dvorak, Sibelius and Ravel (CD liner). Music and Arts. 2006. CD-841.
  23. ^ Coppola, Piero (1982) [1944]. Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 1922–1939 (in French). Geneva: Slatkine. pp. 105–108. ISBN 978-2-05-000208-1. Quoted and translated in Orenstein 2003, p. 540.
  24. ^ Nín, Joaquín (1938). "Comment est né le Boléro". La Revue musicale (in French). 19 (187): 213. Quoted and translated in Mawer 2006, p. 219.
  25. ^ Teachout, Terry (2 May 1999). "A British Bad Boy Finds His Way Back Into the Light". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  26. ^ Bloom 1987, p. 73.
  27. ^ Lanford 2011, p. 243.
  28. ^ Lanford 2011, p. 263.
  29. ^ Lanford 2011, p. 255.
  30. ^ Lanford 2011, p. 256.
  31. ^ Lanford 2011, p. 259.
  32. ^ Andriotakis, Pamela (31 March 1980). "Bo Derek's 'Bolero' Turn-On Stirs Up a Ravel Revival, Millions in Royalties—and Some Ugly Memories". People. Retrieved 24 August 2013.
  33. ^ "1984: British ice couple score Olympic gold", BBC News
  34. ^ "Le batteur du Boléro", Festival de Cannes
  35. ^ "Films courts pour temps long sur le Net" by Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde, 27 March 2020
  36. ^ [
  37. ^ "Copyright expires on Bolero, world's most famous classical crescendo". BusinessWorld. Manila. Agence France-Presse. 2 May 2016. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  38. ^ IMSLP.
  39. ^ "Ravel's Bolero back from the dead?". Retrieved 6 November 2019.


Further reading

External links

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