Ravel - Boléro: Full Works Concert Highlight of the Week

Jane Jones marks both the Winter Olympics and St. Valentine’s Day with a work which is associated with both occasions.

Boléro, the most famous work by French composer Maurice Ravel, was written more than 80 years ago but remains hugely popular. This is largely thanks to its risqué revival in a 1980 romantic comedy and a record-breaking ice routine by Torvill and Dean, 30 years ago on 14 February in the 1984 Winter Olympics. 

The piece started life as a ballet commissioned by Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein. She initially asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Albéniz's set of piano pieces, Iberia. A subsequent copyright row prompted Ravel to rethink and instead write a completely new piece based on the Spanish bolero dance. 

While on holiday, 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 piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to the one we know today.

Boléro is Ravel's simplest composition. Written in C major and 3/4 time, it begins quietly and rises in a continuous crescendo to as loud as possible. The orchestration builds over an unchanging rhythm played on a snare drum that remains constant throughout the piece.

The scene for Rubinstein’s ballet was a Spanish tavern where customers are dancing beneath a brass, ceiling lamp. A woman leaps onto a long table and her movements become more and more animated. Ravel however wanted the ballet set in an open-air scene with a factory in the background to echo the mechanical feel of the music.

The work was a huge success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra in November 1928 and, much to Ravel's surprise, became his most famous composition. He had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. 

Fast forward to the 1980s: In the Dudley Moore romantic comedy 10, the piece is referred to as a good soundtrack for love making. A four-minute extract of the piece is used during the scene that follows. Sales of Boléro rocketed as a result of its use in the movie. Then, four years later, for their winning Winter Olympics display, British skaters Torvill and Dean commissioned a version of Boléro, specially-adapted to comply with Olympic time. They gained the highest score of all time and the Olympic gold medal. Today in Torvill and Dean's home city of Nottingham, the square by the National Ice Centre is named Bolero Square in honour of their achievements and their historic routine. That's not a bad legacy for a piece that its composer dismissed as ‘a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music.’