What does Bolero

Maurice Ravel: Bolero


Jeff Beck's Bolero

To this day, Maurice Ravel's bolero is controversial. While the excitement around Stravinskis Spring sacrifice (Le sacre du printemps) long ago, the bolero is still considered primitive and unimaginative by many. A discussion in the Tamino Klassikforum became even more explosive when the question was raised whether Ravel's brain disease could have had an impact on the composition. The following article on this:

For brain research, Ravel has actually become a »case«, see for example an article in Wissenschaft.de (link and the full text here) or Wieser's contribution to the lecture series Music - medicine - brain of the Herbert von Karajan Center. And vice versa, the bolero is an example for studying what happens in the brain when listening to music (the links to the texts by Wieser and Daniel C. Kiper at the University of Zurich are unfortunately no longer available). wolfgang, I think it was just a misunderstanding to see it as a statement about the quality of this work. Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking that this work of all things has to do with illness. I was not aware of it in this clarity.

Of course there are other pieces by Ravel that are better, but what does "better" mean here? They are more in line with what is expected in a classical music concert. With the Bolero, however, Ravel achieved something that is downright unique and, to this day, inexplicable to me. For me, this is the only time in the 20th century where the point was touched on which literally all music and every type of listening pleasure can refer, examples have already been given sufficiently (so the dream woman with Bo Derek and the legendary appearance of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in figure skating during the 1984 Olympics, which can be seen on YouTube).

Hardly any other conductor was as affected by the atmosphere of the 1950s as Celibidache. Ravel and the Bolero were a constant in his programs. I have an older recording from 1966 with the RAI Milano SO. (Otherwise, despite Ravel's commentary on Toscanini, I definitely enjoy listening to dynamic recordings such as by Charles Münch or Igor Markevitsch, apart from Ansermet and Dutoit, Cluytens should also be mentioned.)

The bolero was the epitome of existentialism in the post-war period. Anyone who had become suspicious of all terms of normality and health, who defiantly took up primitivisms and was looking for something new against the "ideal world" of the bourgeoisie, which had come to shame in the first half of the 20th century, had to encounter the bolero.

And that brings me to Beck's Bolero. Today a very strange picture of rock music is being painted, which wants to wipe away everything that was then contained in the underground wildness. Anyone who knows rock music only from Thomas Gottschalk, the world tours of the Stones or in connection with eternally youthful motorcyclists, football fans and beer-loving nostalgics, can therefore expect only the worst from an "interrogation" of the bolero by rock, the most primitive, so to speak Level of an inherently primitive music.

But the "primitive" is precisely what makes this piece so special, the critics hear that quite rightly in their own way. Ravel took something elementary in music and his time to give the word "primitive" a different twist.

MaikTo put it in a simple formula: The primitive is terrific here.

And a whole current of rock music has also been gripped by this. To this I count the innovative artists who were looking for something new in their own way, for unheard-of sounds, among the guitarists besides Jimi Hendrix also John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, or classics like MC5 and Velvet Underground. Beck has more to say than the excursions into shallow pieces, which undoubtedly also exist of him.

Jeff Beck certainly didn't claim to be an authentic portrayal of Ravel, but hit exactly the right point. Unfortunately, even digitization on CD or YouTube no longer reproduces what was heard on LP, and certainly not what it sounded like live. The piece was written in 1966 together with guitarist Jimmy Page (see an interview with Jeff Beck). 40 years later, a new version was created in 2009 with Tal Wilkenfeld on bass, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Jason Rebello, keyboard (YouTube).

But the dark side of this direction should not be left unmentioned. On May 16, 1966 Keith Moon played drums, The Who), John Paul Jones (bass), Nicky Hopkins (keyboard), Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck recorded the piece at IBC Studios London. The completely new sound of this bolero gave Jimmy Page the final impetus for his new style, which in 1968 founded Led Zeppelin and there to obvious occult overtones. Jimmy Page went so far as to buy Aleister Crowley's house on Loch Ness, Scotland (Boleskine House) in 1972, and he has one of the largest collections of Crowley books. 1973 suggested a collaboration with Kenneth Anger on his film Lucifer Rising fail. In the end, it was not Jimmy Page who wrote the score, but Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the Charles Manson Family and imprisoned for life since 1970 for the murder of Gary Kinman.

An almost opposite, almost classical interpretation can be heard live from May 1988 in Barcelona with Frank Zappa (YouTube). The Ravel heirs had long prevented this recording from being published in Europe. - Colosseum with Jon Hiseman, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Dave Clempson, Tony Reeves and Dave Greenslade play a mixture of classical and rock jazz in 1970.

The premiere

Ravel wasn't that angry with Toscanini. After the conflict over the bolero, he wanted to win him over for the world premiere of the concert for the left hand. That would have become something ...

Ida Rubinstein (1888-1960). Ravel wrote both on her behalf La Valse like the bolero. At the end of his life she was very close to him when he suffered from the severe brain disease.
Author: Von Walentin Alexandrowitsch Serow 1910 - [1], public domain, link

See also the photos by Ida Rubinstin. A photo shows how she performed at the Bolero in 1928.
Link to the photos: theatrex.net

At the premiere, the audience was evidently more impressed by the choreography than the music; at any rate, the critics only mentioned the music with a few lines. At the beginning only one dancer tried tentative steps to the bolero rhythm in a circle of uninvolved people sitting with wine, until gradually the drinkers were drawn into the spell of the music and the dance. (That is not recorded, but Maya Plisetskaya gave an idea in 1975 in the choreography by Maurice Béjart.)


The timbres are precisely calculated. Periods 1-5, 7, 8 and 11 are written for solo instruments. In between, periods for several instruments are inserted in the middle part, which Ravel has deliberately put together in such a way that the sounds of the individual instruments merge into a new timbre and the individual instruments can no longer be heard. It sounds like a previously unknown instrument is playing. This applies in particular to periods 6 (flute, trumpet), 9 (piccolo flutes, horn, celesta), 10 (oboe, oboe d'amore, cor anglais, clarinets) and 12 (piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinets, tenor saxophone). Because this happens for the first time in period 6, and then a solo instrument appears again in period 10 (trombone), Ravel has done everything to deceive the listener.

Periods 13 and 15 have been put together by Ravel in such a way that certain instruments now clearly dominate thanks to their overtone composition (violins and trumpets), and only the final periods 14 and 16 - 18 are put together in such a way that a roaring mixed sound is created by adding individual instruments can be heard, but only indistinctly.


When comparing different interpretations, the main question arises whether the sensuality, even eroticism, or the motor element should be emphasized.

Ravel's own performance can certainly be used as a reference. There is an amazingly audible recording of the concert he conducted with the Orchester de l 'Association des Concerts Lamoureux in January 1930 (available on CD from Urania SP 4209). The jazz elements can be heard much more strongly than in other recordings. The blues comes through fully. The individual instruments play just as they all play in a jazz combo and can show their individual style. Ravel leaves them all freedom.

Sketch by Croquis de Luc-Albert Moreau (1882-1948), Maurice Ravel at the desk of Bolero on January 11, 1930 in Paris. Moreau was the husband of the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (friend of the writer Colette), to whom Maurice Ravel dedicated his sonata for violin and piano.
Author: WikimediaOboeCrack licensed via CC BY-SA 3.0

Jürgen Uhde and Renate Wieland express themselves in their book Thinking and playing (Kassel 1988) in detail on Ravel's Bolero.

“Something of this 'it' that did not become 'me' lives in many of Ravel's works, such as in bolero or the Jeux d'eau. Music of this type seems to be pulsating with objective, non-personal eroticism: Ondine, the half-soul, is the symbol for it. The mythical compulsion of the instinctual occurrence can lead to catastrophes like the dissonances at the end of the bolero. The violence of inner nature then appears as alien as that of an externally imposed fate. "(P. 372)

That seems to me to fit the specialty of this work very well. The bolero was often used as erotic background music, be it as music for ice skating competitions or as background music for films such as The dream woman, Shot in 1979 with Bo Derek. There always remains a certain unease.

“In Ravels bolero The constant basic rhythm and that more than 300-bar persistence on the basses c and g can turn into the image of the relentlessly circling course of the world; the astonishing melody appears as an objection to it; she never submits to him. Her gesture of freedom becomes clear in her aversion to meter, especially in the 2nd part, those plaintive, even accusatory calls on the tone of 'des', which can only be handled by the meter by force. In the cutting dissonance of this tone, we don't actually hear subjective grief, but rather the voice of collective suffering from long pasts.

The interpreters portray the consequences of the struggle between the two spheres in extremely different ways. In the end, the conductor Münch leads the contrasts to an almost hymn-like union, the imago of reconciliation in the intoxication of a folk festival. Musically he realizes this by leveling the extremes and not letting the dangerous force of the disciplining rhythm or the melody's thirst for freedom be fully lived out. But it is precisely this reduction that limits the utopia that he strives for. Celibidache in a recording of the Süddeutscher Rundfunk, on the other hand, implements the demands of each side without compromise: the cold, progressive course of necessity, which the basic rhythm represents here, and the freedom which the melody expresses. He increases this basic rhythm to extreme violence, the melody up to scream. Thus, the simultaneously acting right of the antinomic forces ultimately leads to an explosion. In that Celibidache takes the opposing forces, each for itself, very seriously and does not allow any of them to shrink from the other, only brings into focus, in the negative, what would really mean reconciliation: the undiminished union of extremes. "(P. 45f)

Everyone can listen to these recordings for themselves to form their own opinion. I think Uhde and Wieland asked exactly the right questions about the interpretation, but I cannot agree with their assessment of Münch. There I hear much more demonic traits, which the piece often comes close to La Valse bring.


L. Amaducci, E. Grassi, F. Boller: Maurice Ravel and right-hemisphere musical creativity: influence of disease on his last musical works?
in: European Journal of Neurology, Volume 9 Issue 1 Page 75 - January 2002

Ursula Bäcker: French Modernism from Claude Debussy to Pierre Boulez. Contemporary history in the mirror of music criticism, Regensburg 1962

William Burroughs, "Rock Magic: Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin, And a Search for the Elusive Stairway to Heaven," Crawdaddy Magazine 1975; link

William Burroughs, one of the best-known writers of the Beat movement, spoke to Jimmy Page after a concert by Led Zeppelin about borderline phenomena in music: trance, mass hysteria, the singing of the dolphins, the occultism of Aleister Crowley.

Jean Echenoz: Ravel, Berlin 2007

The recently published novel focuses on the last 10 years of Ravel's life and therefore also contains a lot about the bolero. Very well written, although it must of course never be forgotten that it is a novel and that Ravel is considered an example of art in the 20th century.

Michael Lanford: Working Paper: Ravel and "The Raven"; link

For Lanford, Ravel has Edgar Allan Poe in the Bolero Philosophy of Composition implemented literally, so to speak. Ravel had visited Poe's apartment in the Bronx, New York, in 1928 before working on the Bolero. Lanford examines matches in every detail. For him, the 18 repetitions (if the introduction and the coda are not counted) correspond to Ravel's 18 stanzas of the poem The Raven from Poe. The sonority of the word required by Poe Nevermore is recreated by Ravel in the descending tetrachord figure at the end of the second topic.

Elisabeth Winnecke: Ravel und die Modelle, Frankfurt et al. 2001

Highly recommended to better understand the history and the main influences on Ravel.

& copy tydecks.info 2006 - First published in the Tamino-Klassikforum