MAURICE RAVEL’S first opuses, written when he was still a student of Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, are linked to Spanish dance music, based on an idea of Fauré’s. These are the pieces from 1895 – Habanera, Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte and Menuet Antique. The dance theme remained as a leitmotif in Ravel’s music and also marked his later work until its very peak with Bolero (1928). The composer’s biographers claim that his affinity for Spanish and French melodies and dances was inherited from his mother. This extraordinary sense of Ravel’s appreciation for the choreographic qualities of music was appreciated in Paris in the early twentieth century. In 1912, Ravel’s work was given a new dimension. Ravel created his ballet Daphnis et Chloé especially for Sergei Diaghilev’s troupe, Ballets Russes and Saison Russe in Paris. Soon afterwards, during the First World War, he went to the front and in 1917 he created Le tombeau de Couperin in memory of friends who died in the war. Waltz, set as a choreographic poem, followed in 1920. Bolero was commissioned by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, who intended to perform the choreographic poem Waltz and a new work by Ravel at the Grand Opera in Paris. The composer responded to the request and designed a variation cycle in the style of the Spanish Bolero dance, created by the Spanish dancer Sebastián Cerezo in 1780.
Of the varied bolero variations in Spain, there is none quite like the rhythmic structure in Ravel’s music. The composer defines the piece as: ‘dance music to be performed at an even moderate tempo; it is built on the persistent repetition of the same melody and harmony, a uniform rhythm which is timed throughout with a drum. The only element of variety is the ever-increasing orchestral crescendo. They would hardly play it at the Sunday concerts.”
Ida Rubinstein performed the ballet’s premiere on November 20th, 1928 in Paris with a designs and scenario by Alexandre Benois. And although the dancer did not shine with classical technique, the performance triumphed. The music was subsequently staged many times in various choreographic interpretations, one of the most notable being Maurice Béjart’s performance of Maya Plisetskaya and the Ballet of the Twentieth Century.
Reflecting on his life, Ravel concluded, I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.The work is remarkable for its orchestration, its play of colours, its gigantic development from the quiet sound of a flute to the collapse of a powerful orchestral sound. Perhaps influenced by Ravel, Shostakovich also incorporated the idea of layering timbres and dynamic power in his Seventh Symphony with the theme of invasion.