If you remember the 1980s, you remember Ravel’s “Boléro.” Although the work became a fixture on orchestral programs shortly after its premiere in 1928, the ’80s was arguably the decade of peak “Boléro” saturation, bookended by the soundtrack for the 1979 Dudley Moore comedy, “10,” and Frank Zappa’s 1991 album, “The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life.” At the zenith between these two points, British ice-dancing superstars Torvill and Dean won a gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics with a routine that became the highest-scoring figure-skating program of all time. Its music? “Boléro.” At the time, I was three years old and lived in Australia, but I remember the mania for both the performance and the music. That endless melody triple-lutzed in my head from a young age.
Whenever any work of art achieves pop culture ubiquity, a backlash is sure to follow. Criticisms of “Boléro” began much earlier, originating with several of the composer’s own self-deprecating comments. Commissioned by dancer Ida Rubinstein to write a Spanish-themed ballet, Ravel was initially tasked with orchestrating “Iberia” by Albéniz. Unable to immediately secure permission, Ravel set out to write his own original composition: a melody less than a minute long, backed by Spanish dance rhythms, repeated eighteen times in a slow crescendo. The melody receives little, if any, development as defined by centuries of practice: It is not fragmented, nor sequenced, nor treated contrapuntally, nor turned upside down or inside out, nor reharmonized, nor stated in a different key (other than an abrupt modulation near the climax).
In a 1931 interview with the London Daily Telegraph, Ravel described “Boléro” as “an experiment in a very special and limited direction… There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution.” The result of his experiment was polarizing: Audiences cheered at its premiere and have continued to do so for nearly a century. Yet some listeners and performers are horrified by the lack of melodic invention. A woman at the first performance screamed that Ravel was a madman. (When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly quipped: “She understands!”)
By 1931, Ravel had also identified a pattern in the criticism: “It is perhaps because of these peculiarities that no single composer likes the “Boléro”—and from their point of view they are quite right.” I, a composer who likes—even loves—“Boléro,” can’t help but smile to read this. I understand why Ravel came to this conclusion 90 years ago: Any composer who has been indoctrinated with the idea that melodic and harmonic development are inextricable from good compositional practice cannot process “Boléro” as a “good composition.” But this raises the question: Why do so many composers trained in Western European Classical Music™ accept as truth that melodic and harmonic development are, and should always be, our primary concerns
In most music composition major undergraduate degree programs, students take at least four semesters of music theory—by which we mean Western European music theory. This begins with plainchant and usually peters out with serialism or perhaps minimalism, along with one or two semesters of counterpoint. We spend an enormous amount of time analyzing melody and harmony, and music theory provides us with the tools to do this. Such tools have been forged with rigorous German precision, so they appear mathematically, even scientifically sound. Yet we take only one semester (two at most) of orchestration, and much of that is spent rote-memorizing the ranges and idiosyncrasies of standard orchestral instruments.
Our tools for analyzing timbre are nowhere near as robust as those for analyzing harmony, at least at the undergraduate level, so less attention is paid to it. Generations of young composers have been convinced by theorists that timbre is less worthy of study than melody and harmony because there exists no equivalent of Roman numeral analysis for timbre, and its application doesn’t adhere to any set of easily teachable rules. Even for those who’ve never studied music, the enduring image of the composer is someone who plays and writes music at the piano, feeding into our pedagogical impulse to strip timbre from the act of composition. Indeed, composition and arrangement are often considered two entirely different skills: Orchestrators and arrangers are placed on a lower rung in our industry than composers who supposedly trade in purely melodic/harmonic ideas.
If I may offer a personal opinion: This is bullshit.
Timbre is just as important as melody and harmony in our experience of music. Familiar tonal qualities are imbued with meaning for listeners, ultimately serving as emotional and conceptual shorthand that goes beyond the notes on a staff. After decades of spectralism, minimalism, electroacoustic music, and film soundtracks which center timbre, you’d think that today’s musicians and listeners would have grown past the Romantic idea that a composition is worthless without melodic or harmonic development. Yet that old-fashioned idea persists, and—perhaps because it was an experiment ahead of its time—“Boléro” bears the brunt of it in orchestral literature.
Orchestration is also a true skill and was, in my estimation, the greatest of Ravel’s talents. While my familiarity with “Boléro” was well-established in my ’80s childhood, it wasn’t until I was playing viola in a college orchestra rehearsal of the work that my admiration for this skill caught fire.
Violists and cellists are notorious for despising “Boléro” because of its monotony; our pizzicato notes are so repetitive and unrelenting that we leave our bows on the music stand for the first three-quarters of the work. But this unexciting part is perfect for observing orchestration from inside the belly of the beast: Ravel passes the melody through the woodwinds first, from the simple timbre of a low-register flute to the more complex and insistent waveforms of the saxophones. At one point he combines the flute and trumpet, a tried-and-true combination used by countless composers, giving the trumpet a softer, brighter sound. Then, in the eighth repetition of the melody featuring the first horn, celesta, and piccolos, he does something remarkable.
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Although I had, by that time, heard many recordings of “Boléro,” I hadn’t, until this day, investigated what was making this sound. I looked behind me, but I couldn’t understand why the combination was scrambling my ears. It didn’t sound like the sum of its parts, but like a completely new instrument, some type of organ perhaps. I snuck a look at the piccolo players’ music and saw that, although “Boléro” is in C major, they were playing in G major and E major respectively, with key signatures to match. Was this polytonality?
It took a moment for me to understand, and then I was thunderstruck: Ravel hacks the timbre of the horn by having the piccolos play the fourth and fifth overtones above. On the harmonics, the piccolos change the sound of the fundamental. Taken as a combination, the horn’s attack now sounds more like a flute. But the celesta also adds a slight sharpness to the attack. Ravel was treating the instruments like a synth player adjusting ADSR envelopes and oscillator frequencies to create new sounds. And it worked perfectly. It was such a stunning realization that I started crying. I had so much to learn.
“Boléro” is more than an artifact of classical music gone pop; it is a masterclass in orchestration. Ravel takes the listener—or the composition student—from simple concepts like balancing a solo woodwind or brass instrument against other sections of the orchestra, to experimental combinations that shed new light on what is possible with traditional instruments played using standard techniques. By removing typical variables like melody and harmony, he makes the orchestration the star and demonstrates how it alone can hold attention, control form, and manipulate the listener’s emotions just as effectively as chromatic harmony and unendliche Melodie. The brash trombone glissandi in the explosive final repetition are deliberately hilarious, a joyful celebration of the success of Ravel’s intentions.
In recent years, despite Ravel’s clearly stated intentions with this work, some musicologists, neurologists, and psychologists have taken criticism of “Boléro” a step further by pathologizing it, suggesting that the work was the result of neurological disease causing a form of musical obsession and amusia. Some authors have put forth theories that dementia, affecting one hemisphere of Ravel’s brain, caused him to avoid using a “complex structured theme” in favor of focusing on timbres and rhythmically pulsating styles. This speculation has always struck me as bizarre and borderline offensive: Should we investigate a similar diagnosis for every composer who experiments with repetition and pulsating rhythms, or focuses on timbre? Did Ravel only write a popular work that prefigured whole new styles of music because there was something medically wrong with him? If only his brain were healthy, this research seems to imply, he would have focused on melodic development like a “proper” European genius.
Perhaps the most poignant comment Ravel made about “Boléro” was his insistence that “once the idea of using only one theme was discovered, any conservatory student could have done as well.” I wonder if this were ever true, but given this line of analysis and the shape of our current music theory training, I doubt it’s true now. One consolation is that my students, born in the 21st century, are not as familiar with “Boléro” as my generation. Some of them hear it for the first time in my orchestration class, coming to it unburdened with the idea that they’re supposed to hate it. It’s the ideal controlled condition for them to watch Ravel’s experiment play out to its powerful conclusion, full of sly intrigue, humor, and possibility. ¶
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