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            Ravel, was the son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father, but was quintessentially French in his elegant, stylish artistic imagination.  He is clearly in the camp of those classicists who elegantly re-interpret the genres, forms, and musical syntax of the past.   Only a cursory review of many of the titles of Ravel’s works will bear out his deep fascination and appreciation for the uses of the musical past for imaginative, original contributions to a musical future.  And yet, his music smacks nothing at all of the reactionary.   Rather, while he definitely didn’t storm the ramparts of startling change in musical style as did so many of his early twentieth-century compatriots, his music just “sounds” modern.   As did so many seminal intellects of romantic and post-romantic Europe, Ravel knew and appreciated the works of the American poet, Edgar Allen Poe—which fact may surprise most Americans these days, who have consigned Poe and his raven to the dusty closet of school-house poetry.  But, interestingly, Ravel considered him his “third” teacher after that of actual French musical models.  For Ravel, Poe’s stress on craftsmanship, as well as his ideas on the process of artistic conception and creation, was strongly influential.  Ravel also admired Poe’s thoughts on proportion, economy of means, beauty, and perfection.

            His oeuvre from beginning to end is a succession of infinitely subtle, sophisticated, and attractive compositions—yet, how ironic it is that what has come to be his best-known work he considered a trifle, an experiment, and a work consisting wholly of “orchestral tissue without music.”   Bolero’s genesis came relatively late in Ravel’s life out of a commission from the great Russian ballerina, Ida Rubenstein.  Her first suggestion didn’t work out and Ravel ultimately crafted a far more modest—or so he thought at the time—ballet for her (she had commissioned many works from the notable composers of the time).  The story of the ballet is brief (and the music lasts only around fifteen minutes):  In a Spanish tavern, in the midst of a raucous crowd, a women leaps onto a table and dances the traditional boléro, becoming gradually more animated, until violence is threatened among the men, and the intense episode ends with a crash.  There was a near-riot at the first performance.

            Ravel’s setting for this little scene begins quietly with the snare drummer playing the traditional boléro rhythm—an unenviable task the poor player will have to unwaveringly perform non-stop for over fifteen minutes, straight through until the end.  Truth be told, the player would probably rather be somewhere else. The simple “Spanish-Arab” melody is first heard in flute with simple pizzicato accompaniment in the lower strings (they, too, have an endurance challenge, for they must pluck non-stop to the end). The listener will hear it repeated eighteen more times, each in a different solo instrument or new combinations of instruments.    As the tune is passed around, notice that the instrumental combinations that form the accompaniment change as well.  The large orchestral forces include a small clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn, oboe d’amore, piccolo trumpet, and several saxophones.  Sure, the hypnotic rhythm and the ever-increasing volume tend to grab your attention, but pay heed to the wonderful colors mixed up for the listener.  The tension generated by the repetition is enhanced by Ravel’s steadfast adherence to the key of C major—although considerable charm and interest is occasionally wrought by having some of the accompanying instruments double the melody simultaneously in different, but closely-related keys.  A true stroke of genius occurs near the end:  When you think that you are going to scream if you hear another bar of C major, Ravel abruptly signals the approaching end by a short move to the striking and ingratiating key of E major—but only for eight bars.  The tumult reaches its climax, and with glissandi from the trombones and saxophones, amid smashing percussion, the orchestra triumphantly slides home to C major by a half step.  Ravel’s “experiment” ends and in his own words:  you can “. . . take it or leave it.”

            Economy of means is a traditional virtue in art, and Ravel intentionally experimented with repetitive rhythm and melody in order focus the mind on changing instrumental color.  Sure, the long crescendo is important, but his acclaimed genius at orchestration makes the piece.  You might say that never in the field of musical composition have so many enjoyed so much made from so little (sorry).

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan