10 (little) things you might not know about Ravel's Boléro
Ravel's Boléro is probably one of the best-known pieces in the history of music. And, like any celebrity, the work is laden with stories and anecdotes...
It's said that Boléro by Maurice Ravel is one of the most frequently-played pieces of classical music and that, every 15 minutes, somewhere in the world, a performance begins. One thing is certain: it is highly ranked among the 10 works most frequently played outside France, according to SACEM (the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music), as its entry into the public domain frees French performers from its rights holders.
Everyone - or almost - knows Boléro, but how many people are aware that it almost never came into existence? Or that George Lucas thought of making it the main Star Wars theme? Or that it is one of the frequently-used musical backgrounds to love-making?
1- It almost never came into existence
In 1927, Ida Rubinstein commissioned Maurice Ravel to compose a "Spanish-style ballet", but the composer hadn't yet come up with Boléro. He initially considered orchestrating six pieces from Iberia by Albéniz.The problem was, though, that the rights to Iberia were the exclusive property of his former pupil Enrique Arbos. Given the imbroglio surrounding the rights to Boléro to date, Ravel's comment on the copyright issue: "These laws are stupid", is all the more ironic.
When Enrique Arbos offered to surrender his rights to Ravel, the composer had already moved on to other things. It was a simple project, described in his own words as "a theme lasting less than a minute, but which I'll repeat for up to 18 minutes". And that was how the Boléro began.
2- A ballet for Ida Rubenstein
We are so accustomed to hearing the concert version of Boléro that we tend to forget it is ballet music. The Russian dancer and Belle Époque icon Ida Rubenstein commissioned the work from Ravel. She wanted a ballet with a Spanish inspiration. After a few false starts, the composer eventually brought her Boléro, modelled on a Spanish dance in triple time that first appeared in the 18th century.
At its first performance on 22 November 1928 at the Garnier opera house in Paris, Boléro was danced by Ida Rubinstein, in the role of a Flamenco dancer, to an enthusiastic audience. Since then, numerous choreographers have used the work: while the most memorable version was produced by Maurice Béjart (1961) and immortalised by Claude Lelouch in the film Les Uns et les Autres, Serge Lifar (1941), Michel Fokine (1935) and Thierry Malandain (2001) also merit a mention.
3- Ravel versus Toscanini
Ravel was something of a stickler when it came to performing his Boléro. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini learnt this to his expense in May 1930: after having conducted the work at twice the tempo intended by the composer, the latter refused to shake the conductor's hand. Toscanini then said to Ravel, "You don't understand your music at all. It'll fall flat if I don't play it my way". To which Ravel reportedly replied, "Then don't play it at all".
For his ready wit and the fact that history proved the composer right: Ravel: 1 - Toscanini: 0.
4- Did Ravel actually record his Boléro?
The first recording of Boléro has been attributed to Maurice Ravel himself at the head of the Concerts Lamoureux orchestra, rehearsed by Albert Wolff. However, a few years before his death, Albert Wolff stated that he himself had conducted the recording. According to conductor and musicologist Jean-François Monnard, the former Concerts Lamoureux conductor did in fact record the work instead of Ravel. However he omitted to mention that the orchestra had been rehearsed by Pedro de Freitas Branco.
Whatever the facts of the matter, it would appear that we owe the very first recording of Boléro to the Milanese conductor Pierre Coppola under the composer's supervision.
5- A work scoffed at by its author
Boléro may have brought Maurice Ravel worldwide renown, the composer invariably scoffed at his composition. When, on the evening of the first performance, someone shouted that it was the work of a madman, the composer is said to have murmured "That person has understood". More importantly, we have Ravel's actual words: "My masterpiece? Boléro? What next! Sadly there is nothing musical in it"; "My Boléro should bear the epigraph: "Get this into your head..."; not forgetting "Up until this modulation, any Conservatoire student should be able to do as much".
His pupil Manuel Rosenthal clear-sightedly said to Ravel "If the truth be told, you're very disparaging about Boléro, but who else do you think could have written it?". To which the composer replied, "Anyone can do it. All it takes is work and the skills of the trade."
6- A "musico-sexual" Boléro
Maurice Ravel himself is said to have acknowledged the "musico-sexual" nature of his work, so the repetitive, throbbing grind of the famous crescendo passage is indeed subversive. Most choreographers who work on the piece are quite clear about its character, as are film makers, and the work is very often used to evoke the eroticism of a situation.
According to a survey commissioned by the online music streaming site Spotify, Boléro is the third most popular background music for sex, just after the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and _Sexual Healing_by Marvin Gaye.
7- The world's most performed work?
Up until 1993, Ravel's Boléro topped SACEM's global ranking of copyright payments, and even today is among the highest earners. A financial godsend for the controversial rights holders and, more importantly, a timeless hit: 73% of the French people polled in 2008 said they had already heard it.
8- George Lucas thought of making it the theme music for Star Wars
Before hiring the soundtrack composer John Williams, Star Wars director George Lucas had intended to use excerpts from classical music, like Stanley Kubrick in 2001, a space odyssey. This accounts for the fact that, according to actor Anthony Daniels (C3PO in the film), at the first screening of the film, "the soundtrack still had Ravel's Boléro".
9- Million-dollar Boléro
The story behind the rights to Boléro is an incredible string of sensational events, conflicts of interest, lobbying and even offshore companies in Panama. It begins with the death of Maurice Ravel on 28 December 1937 and only partially came to an end when Boléro entered the public domain on 1 May 2016. Partially, because the work is still protected in many countries (including the United States up until 2024) and because there are still many grey areas surrounding the beneficiaries of the rights, which are said to have totalled no less than €46 million between 1970 and 2006. An in-depth article goes into this amazing story, along with an outline explanation of copyright law.
10- The most frequently-quoted classical piece?
Ravel's Boléro may not be the most quoted classical piece, especially in comparison with Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, but it is extremely well placed even so. In jazz (Benny Goodman), rap (Saïan Supa Crew), electronic music, French commercial music or mambo, there have been dozens of cover versions (the best of which can be found in a special selection).
Of these, Frank Zappa's 1991 cover caused a furore. The sheet music publisher Durand, which published Boléro, objected to the record's sale and forced the artist to take it off the market. This was not the only such instance. In 1970, the rock group James Band, one of whose members was Joe Walsh (future member of the Eagles), brought out a record called James Gang Rides Again, which included a track entitled The Bomber: Closet Queen / Boléro / Cast Your Fate to the Wind, with a cover of Boléro. Here again, the rights holders objected to the cover version and the record was withdrawn from sale.