The background to Bolero

Ravel’s infamous Boléro was somewhat created by chance:

Shortly before Ravel left for America, the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein had asked him for a ballet to be based on orchestrations of parts of Albéniz’s Iberia. To this he agreed; with so much on his plate he was not anxious to undertake further commitments for wholly original composition.  But when he returned it was discovered that the sole rights to the orchestration of Iberia belonged to the Spanish conductor and composer Enrique Fernádex Arbós, who had already made a number of transcriptions, so the plan had to be abandoned and Ravel was obliged, so as not to renege on his word and disappoint a good friend, to produce an original work after all.  In fact Arbós, when he heard of the situation, generously offered to waive his rights; but by then Ravel had decided to write a piece of his own, and the offer was declined.  It turned out to be a decision that had widespread ramifications, since the work he produced was what subsequently became his most famous (and to some tastes infamous) orchestral composition: Boléro.

That summer, he spent a short holiday at his birthplace, Ciboure near St Jean-de-Luz, in company with his friend Gustave Samazeuilh.  One morning Samazeuilh found Ravel in a “yellow dressing gown and scarlet cap” picking out a simple little tune on the piano.  “Don’t you think this a pretty insistent kind of theme?” Ravel asked his friend.  “I am going to try to repeat it a number of times on different orchestral levels but without any development.  Mme Rubinstein has asked me for a Ballet.  On his return to “Le Belvédère” [his home] he set to work and completed the score in quick time. Originally it was to be called Fandango but was soon changed to Boléro, which may account for the somewhat nebulous connection with any known or strictly observed Spanish dance form.  Ravel himself was aware of this.  (He knew his Spain and his Spanish dances as well as any Spaniard and a lot better than most Frenchmen).  But he regarded it as of no importance, as he made clear when Joaquin Nin pointed it out to him.  He was also perfectly well aware of the nature of his composition: he knew it was a technical tour de force of much skill and ingenuity, but little else. “Unhappily”, he added”, “it has no music in it.” … He was therefore a good deal taken aback at its enormous and immediate popularity as a concert piece. (1)

Bolero was premiered at the Paris Opera on 22 November 1918, conducted by Walter Straram .

(1) James, Burnett (1983) Ravel: His Life and Times.  New York: Hippocrene Books, p.121