Hear a 1930 Recording of Boléro, Conducted by Ravel Himself

ravel bolero

On May 1st, 2016, Mau­rice Ravel’s mas­ter­ful orches­tral com­po­si­tion Boléro entered the pub­lic domain, which means we may be hear­ing a lot more of the piece, first writ­ten and per­formed in 1928 as a bal­let com­mis­sioned by Russ­ian dancer Ida Ruben­stein. Then again, it’s not like Boléro hasn’t ful­ly per­me­at­ed the public’s domain for decades, regard­less of its copy­right sta­tus.

Audi­ences swooned as British ice dancers Torvill and Dean won the gold at the 1984 Win­ter Olympics in Sara­je­vo with a per­fect score-per­for­mance to Boléro; both Jeff Beck and Frank Zap­pa have cov­ered it; Boléro famous­ly scored a sex scene in 1979’s sleazy com­e­dy 10; it popped up in 2014’s Spi­der-Man 2; and it even pro­vid­ed the title of a film, 1934’s Bolero, which cul­mi­nat­ed in the leads danc­ing to Ravel’s com­po­si­tion….

If you hap­pened to have missed all of these cul­tur­al moments, you’ve still heard Boléro, with its unmis­tak­able flute and pic­co­lo melody and per­sis­tent­ly rap­ping snare drum. (Maybe you, and your tot, saw sev­en chick­ens dance to Boléro on Sesame Street.)

Boléro is not only Ravel’s most famous com­po­si­tion, but per­haps one of the most well-known pieces of clas­si­cal music ever writ­ten. “Famous to his­to­ri­ans and record-books for osten­si­bly con­tain­ing the longest-sus­tained sin­gle crescen­do any­where in orches­tral reper­to­ry,” writes All­mu­sic, and “famous to musi­cians and music lovers for being both the most repet­i­tive 15 min­utes of music they are like­ly to play/hear and also one of the most absolute­ly well-com­posed.” So repet­i­tive is Boléro that it has been cit­ed as evi­dence that Mau­rice Rav­el suf­fered from Alzheimer’s when he wrote it.

I find this expla­na­tion of Boléro uncon­vinc­ing, pri­mar­i­ly because of its afore­men­tioned “well-com­posed” qual­i­ty. This is no musi­cal per­se­ver­a­tion, the symp­tom of a decay­ing mind, but an inten­tion­al exercise—as is so much mod­ern music since Ravel—in find­ing beau­ty and vari­a­tion in same­ness. We hear it in the min­i­mal­ism of com­posers like Steve Reich, or the dron­ing beats of Kraftwerk and Can. In fact, clas­si­cal review mag­a­zine Gramo­phone invokes Krautrock-style rep­e­ti­tion in its descrip­tion of Boléro’s dri­ve “toward motorik self-obliv­ion.” The piece “is about devel­op­ing a sin­gle moment in time, obses­sive­ly rethought/re-shad­ed/re­drawn/re­vis­it­ed, revealed through shift­ing per­spec­tives on itself.”

Gramo­phone’s thor­ough doc­u­men­ta­tion of Boléro’s record­ing his­to­ry details the ways in which a suc­ces­sion of con­duc­tors and orches­tras have approached the piece’s com­plex inter­play of same­ness and dif­fer­ence, begin­ning with one of the very first record­ings, con­duct­ed by Rav­el him­self, in 1930. Lead­ing the Orchestre des Con­certs Lam­oureux in a ses­sion for Poly­dor, Rav­el was in poor health, and per­haps indeed suf­fer­ing from some form of demen­tia. (Two years lat­er, an auto acci­dent wors­ened his con­di­tion; Rav­el died in 1937 after an unsuc­cess­ful brain surgery.) His “con­duct­ing tech­nique” in the 1930 record­ing “falls far short” in com­par­i­son to oth­er record­ed ver­sions, writes Gramo­phone in their tepid review.

Nonethe­less, this ver­sion rep­re­sents a “his­tor­i­cal curio” and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear the com­pos­er pre­side over his own inter­pre­ta­tion of this enthralling piece of music. You can hear Ravel’s record­ing above or on the album Rav­el: Ses Amis et Ses Inter­pretes, avail­able on Spo­ti­fy (get Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware here).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Rav­el Play Rav­el in 1922

Hear Debussy Play Debussy: A Vin­tage Record­ing from 1913

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Emi says:

    It’s Bolero, with­out the accent on the e.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Oh real­ly? Why do you say that? Cam­bridge Quar­ter­ly, Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Rav­el, Warn­er Clas­sics, Sony Clas­si­cal, and sev­er­al oth­ers all use accent­ed spelling…

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for clar­i­fy­ing, Miguel.

  • John Upton says:

    Hah! I *knew* it!!!!

    This record­ing fea­tures a trom­bone pitched in “C,” not Bb. Rav­el usu­al­ly knew what he was doing in terms of orches­tra­tion, and his Bolero lies, um, awk­ward­ly at best on a Bb trom­bone.

    C trom­bones were avail­able and used at least spo­rad­i­cal­ly in France back in the days of this piece’s pre­mier. Lis­ten to the clar­i­ty of that first high Db, (a nice, sol­id note on a C trom­bone, and a fluffy note on a Bb), and the rel­a­tive fuzzi­ness of the final low Db (in 7th posi­tion on a C). Aside from that low Db, this whole piece lies much more log­i­cal­ly on a C trom­bone. The final tut­ti glis­san­di as anoth­er exam­ple lie beau­ti­ful­ly on a C, and sound pret­ty darn good on this record­ing.

    Thanks so much for post­ing this record­ing and giv­ing me a good excuse to fire up that propane torch! :)

    This is gonna be fun.

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