Ravel was the only composer of ‘Boléro’, court rules after six-year co-writer dispute

1 July 2024, 12:47 | Updated: 1 July 2024, 12:54

Ravel was the only composer of ‘Boléro’, court rules after six-year co-writer dispute
Ravel was the only composer of ‘Boléro’, court rules after six-year co-writer dispute. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The case could have taken Ravel’s Boléro out of the public domain.

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A French court ruled on Friday that composer Maurice Ravel wrote Boléro by himself, rejecting claims of co-authorship.

Ravel himself considered Boléro one of his least important works, but it has always been hugely popular with audiences, played out in concert halls, ice skating rinks and even on the silver screen in 2024.

In court, the six heirs of the celebrated Russian stage designer Alexandre Benois argued that Benois should have been credited as co-author, after he worked on designs and set for the original performance – a claim they began in 2018.

The court in Nanterre, outside Paris, rejected claims that Boléro was a collaborative work and ruled the work “consequently remains in the public domain”.

When Ravel first conducted the Bolero at the Paris Opera on 20 November 1928, it was an immediate success.

The composer died 10 years later, the Bolero being one of the last works he ever wrote before his illness took over.

The piece is now in the public domain, and the composer’s family earned millions until the copyright ended in 2016.

Copyright generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the composer or author. Some countries in Europe added extra years, “wartime extensions”, to make up for losses during World War II.

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Since 2018, Benois’ heirs have been demanding he should be credited as co-author and share some of the proceeds. The designer died in 1960, which would mean Boléro would be back under copyright until 2039.

In the court case, Benois’ heirs drew on documents naming Benois as co-author of the music.

A lawyer for the Benois estate told a French court in February: “The music of the Bolero was created especially for the ballet” and should not be considered a standalone orchestral work.

Today, it is usually performed as a piece of orchestral concert music and is rarely staged as a ballet.

France’s Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers (Sacem) said the claim was based on a “historical fiction”, and produced an official declaration signed by Ravel in 1929 marking him as the sole author.

Sacem’s lawyer said the rights once generated “millions and millions of euros” per year, but between 2011 and 2016, these earnings were closer to €135,507 a year.

Gilles Vercken, a lawyer for the Ravel estate, said: “We are calmly analysing the decision before responding to the press.”