Boléro is a one-movement orchestral piece by Maurice Ravel. Originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian ballerina Ida Rubenstein, the piece, which premiered in 1928, is considered Ravel's most famous musical composition. Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large scale ballets (such as Daphnis et Chloé, composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (such as the second orchestral version of Ma Mère l'Oye, 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (such as La Valse, 1906-1920). Apart from such compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes (the 1895 Menuet and the 1899 Pavane) to his more mature works like Le tombeau de Couperin (which takes the format of a dance suite).
Boléro epitomises Ravel's preoccupation with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement: the two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée song cycle were the only compositions that followed Boléro.
The work had its genesis in a commission from the dancer Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz' set of piano pieces, Iberia. While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own previously-written works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece based on the musical form and Spanish dance called bolero. While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." This piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to "Boléro".
The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs by Alexandre Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Ernest Ansermet had originally been engaged to conduct the orchestra during its entire ballet season; however the orchestra refused to play under him. A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:
Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.
Ravel himself, however, had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.
Boléro became Ravel's most famous composition, much to the surprise of the composer, who had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. It is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story, at the premiere a woman shouted that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel smiled and remarked that she had understood the piece. The piece was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself composed a version for two pianos, published in 1930.
The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on January 8, 1930. The recording session was attended by Ravel. The very next day Ravel made his own recording for Polydor, conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra. That same year further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1929. The performance was a great success, bringing "shouts and cheers from the audience" according to a New York Times review leading one critic to declare that "it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro", and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into "almost an American national hero".
On May 4, 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra's European tour. Toscanini's tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signaled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini's gesture during the audience ovation. An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account Ravel said "It's too fast", to which Toscanini responded "It's the only way to save the work". According to another report Ravel said "That's not my tempo". Toscanini replied "When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective", to which Ravel retorted "Then do not play it". Four months later Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that "I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations" and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased Boléro's fame. Other factors in the work's renown were the large number of early performances, gramophone records (including Ravel's own), transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture Bolero starring Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.
Boléro is written for a large orchestra consisting of two flutes, piccolo (actually a second piccolo doubles the second flautist because it is in the part with the horns and celesta.), two oboes (oboe 2 doubles oboe d'amore), cor anglais, two B-flat clarinets (Bb Clarinet 1 or 2 doubles on E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, piccolo trumpet in D, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two saxophones (one sopranino and one tenor doubling on soprano — one of the first large ensemble pieces to employ the family), timpani, two snare drums, a bass drum, one pair of orchestral cymbals, tamtam, celesta, two harps and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses).
(The sopranino saxophone called for in the instrumentation is a sopranino saxophone in F; the ones of today are in E-flat. Today, both the soprano saxophone and the sopranino saxophone parts are commonly played on the B-flat soprano saxophone.)
(The celesta, E-flat clarinet, and the soprano saxophone only comes once in part, meaning they cannot be used in later parts of the music (including the final). Actually the oboe d'amore comes twice, one after the E-flat clarinet, and the other with the oboes and clarinets.)
Boléro is "Ravel's most straightforward composition in any medium". The music is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on one or more snare drums that remains constant throughout the piece:
On top of this rhythm is repeated a single theme, consisting of two eighteen-bar sections, each itself repeated twice. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the "expressive vocal melody trying to break free". Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo.
The melody is passed among different instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, oboe d'amore, trumpet (with flute not heard clearly and in higher octave than the first part), tenor saxophone, sopranino saxophone, horn, piccolos and celesta, oboe, English horn and clarinet, trombone, some of the wind instruments, first violins and some wind instruments, first and second violins together with some instruments, violins and some of the wind instruments, some instruments in the orchestra, and finally all but not all the instruments in the orchestra (with bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam). While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onwards other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overtones of each note of the melody. The other significant "key doubling" involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these "key doublings", Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.
The accompaniment becomes gradually thicker and louder until the whole orchestra is playing at the very end. Just before the end (rehearsal number 18 in the score), there is a sudden change of key to E major, though C major is reestablished after just eight bars. Six bars from the end, the bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam make their first entry, the English horn returns, and the trombones and both saxophones play raucous glissandi while the whole orchestra beats out the rhythm that has been played on the snare drum from the very first bar. Finally, the work descends from a dissonant D-flat chord to a C major chord.
The highly repetitive nature of Boléro, out of keeping with the contemporary musical tradition, and Ravel’s own hitherto creativity, has led to a hypothesis that he was in early stages of dementia (not necessarily Alzheimer’s) at the time of composing it. On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article saying Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia in 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro. Of course, a dementing illness may have also underlain his initial obstinacy with Toscanini.
The tempo indication in the score is Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"). In Ravel's own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted. Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72. Ravel's own recording from January 1930 starts at around 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60-63. Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds. Coppola's first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds. Ravel said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that the piece lasts 17 minutes.
An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel's associate Pedro de Freitas Branco, extending well over 18 minutes and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski's 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes.
At Coppola's first recording Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola's own report:
Maurice Ravel [...] did not have confidence in me for the Boléro. He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: "not so fast", he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.
Ravel's preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini's performance, as reported above. Toscanini's 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds.
Ravel was a stringent critic of his own work. During Boléro's composition, he said to Joaquín Nin that the work had "no form, properly speaking, no development, no or almost no modulation". In a newspaper interview with The Daily Telegraph in July 1931 he spoke about the work as follows:
It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of "orchestral tissue without music" — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.
In 1934, in his book Music Ho!, Constant Lambert wrote: There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La Valse and towards the beginning of Boléro).
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto composed the piece Bolerish, a 13-minute orchestral homage to Ravel's Boléro, for the Brian De Palma film Femme Fatale. He also composed and performed a solo piano version of Bolerish.
A rework of Boléro is found on Angélique Kidjo's album Djin Djin, which starts mostly a cappella by means of multiple overdubbing before some building to an appropriate crescendo with some additional instrumentation. Boléro is integrated into Rufus Wainwright's song "Oh What a World."
The rock band The James Gang included a section of Boléro in their song "The Bomber" on the initial pressing of their 1970 album James Gang Rides Again. However, Ravel's estate (which still owns copyright on the work) objected, and as a result the band edited that section out of the song on subsequent pressings of the album. The CD re-issue of Rides Again contains the full version of "The Bomber," with the Boléro section restored.
Similarly, Ravel's estate has objected to Frank Zappa's treatment of Boléro on his 1991 live album The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, and has forced omission of the song from the European release of the album.
Manchester post-punk artist Eric Random performed a version of Boléro on his compilation Subliminal 1980-1982. Boléro was at one point also used as the background music in Blue Man Group's stage show during the Twinkie Feast sketch. It has since been replaced by an unidentified samba.
Boléro is the title of a dialogue-heavy one-act play by David Ives about a conflict between a married couple. The action of the dialogue rises and falls in a rhythm similar to its namesake.
Boléro has been used commonly in the Canadian show Kenny Vs. Spenny.
Marc Jacobs featured Boléro as a musical accompaniment to the runway show for his Spring 2008 Women's Collection.
Japanese acoustic guitar duo DEPAPEPE has covered the song in their album DEPACLA ～depapepe plays the classics～.
Jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote a song called "Narrow Bolero" and played it as the first song of the set released as Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Live in Copenhagen. He was quoted in the liner notes as saying that it was one of his favorite songs. "Narrow Bolero"'s melody has little to do with Ravel's invention but it is clearly named for its snare ostinato and overall crescendo.
An abbreviated, four-minute rendition of Boléro originally appeared on Pink Martini's debut album Sympathique but was removed in later printings of the album due to a disagreement over legal terms set by Ravel's estate.
Boléro was used in the Doctor Who episode "The Impossible Planet."
The piece has also been used as background music in the Japanese anime series Digimon (seasons 1, 2; movies 1, 2). In the original Digimon Adventure movie, Boléro is the main motif in connection to the Agumon released and his evolution. It is also used in season 3 as one of the character's ringtones.
The piece was used in a scene of the movie The New Guy.
Another use of Boléro in anime is seen in the Legend of the Galactic Heroes movie. The music is heard in its entirety during a long battle sequence.
The George Raft movie Bolero, about a professional dancer and gigolo, featured the piece in the dramatic ending of the film. Released in 1934, it also starred Carole Lombard and fan-dancer Sally Rand and early appearances by William Frawley and Ray Milland.
Samples of a recording of Boléro are featured in artist Amon Tobin's track "Nightlife" from his 1998 album Permutation.
It is heard in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, where the titular character dismisses it for an old skating tune.
Jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader recorded an arrangement for his 1973 album Last Bolero in Berkeley.
"Abaddon's Bolero," a composition by Keith Emerson, appears on the Emerson, Lake & Palmer album Trilogy. It is something of a martialized Bolero (in 4/4 rhythm rather than the usual 3/4). A single melody containing multiple modulations within itself is repeated over and over in ever more thickly layered arrangements, starting from a quiet flute-like sound over a single drum, and building up to an ear-shattering wall of sound.
Marcelle Lender in Chilperic, 1895]]
Bolero is a name given to certain slow, romantic latin music and its associated dance and song. There are Spanish and Cuban forms, which are both significant, and which have separate origins. The term is also used for some art music. In all its forms, the bolero has been popular for over a century, and still is today.
Bolero is a 3/4 dance that originated in Spain in the late 18th century, a combination of the contradanza and the sevillana. Dancer Sebastiano Carezo is credited with inventing the dance in 1780. It is danced by either a soloist or a couple. It is in a moderately slow tempo and is performed to music which is sung and accompanied by castanets and guitars with lyrics of five to seven syllables in each of four lines per verse. It is in triple time and usually has a triplet on the second beat of each bar.
In Cuba, the bolero is perhaps the first great Cuban musical and vocal synthesis to win universal recognition. In 2/4 time, this dance music spread to other countries, leaving behind what Ed Morales has called the "most popular lyric tradition in Latin America".
The Cuban bolero tradition originated in Santiago de Cuba in the last quarter of the 19th century; it does not owe its origin to the Spanish music and song of the same name. In the 19th century there grew up in Santiago de Cuba a group of itinerant musicians who moved around earning their living by singing and playing the guitar. Probably, this kind of life had been going on for some time; but it comes into focus when we learn about named individuals who left their marks on Cuban popular music.
Pepe Sanchez (born José Sánchez at Santiago de Cuba, 1856–1918) is known as the father of the trova style and the creator of the Cuban bolero. Untrained, but with remarkable natural talent, he composed numbers in his head and never wrote them down. As a result, most of these numbers are now lost, but two dozen or so survive because friends and disciples wrote them down. He was the model and teacher for the great trovadores who followed. 
The Cuban bolero traveled to Mexico and the rest of Latin America after its conception, where it became part of their repertoires. Some of the bolero's leading composers have come from nearby countries, most especially the great and prolific Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández; another example being Mexico's Agustín Lara. Some Cuban composers of the bolero are listed under Trova.
José Loyola comments that the frequent fusions of the bolero with other Cuban rhythms is one of the reasons it has been so fertile for such a long period of time:
This adaptability was largely achieved by dispensing with limitations in format or instrumentation, and by an increase in syncopation (so producing a more afrocuban sound). Examples would be:
The lyrics of the bolero can be found throughout popular music, especially Latin dance music. This gives the creations of a former time a kind of perpetual life. The old trovadores lived close to their people, and their songs reflected the loves, lives and concerns of the people. It has proved surprisingly difficult for present-day musicians to do better. The bolero is a great survivor.
If the bolero does have limitations for non-Latin audiences (for whom the lyrics are mostly unappreciated), its place in Latin music and dance is more or less permanent.
A version of the Cuban bolero is the dance popular throughout much of the world under the misnomer 'rumba'. This came about because a simple cover-all term was needed for Cuban music in the 1930s. The famous Peanut Vendor was so labelled, and the label stuck for other types of Cuban music.
In Cuba the bolero is usually written in 2/4 time, elsewhere often 4/4. The tempo for dance is about 120 beats per minute. The music has a gentle Cuban rhythm related to a slow son, which is the reason it may be described as a bolero-son. Like some other Cuban dances, there are three steps to four beats, with the first step of a figure on the second beat, not the first. The slow (over the two beats #s four and one) is executed with a hip movement over the standing foot, with no foot-flick. 
There are many so-called boleros in art music (e.g. classical music) which may not conform to either of the above types.
Chopin wrote a bolero for solo piano, keeping more closely to the Latin root word bolaro, meaning to perform two parts in harmony; Debussy one in La Soirée dans Grenada; Bizet in Carmen and Saint-Saëns wrote boleros; Lefébure-Wély wrote Boléro de Concert for organ. Moszkowski's first set of Spanish Dances (Op. 12) ends with a bolero. The bolero from Hervé's Chilpéric (operetta) has been immortalized in Toulouse-Lautrec's famous painting (above). Ravel's Boléro is one of his most famous works, originally written as a ballet score for his patron Blanche Lapin, but now usually played as a concert piece. It was originally called Fandango, but has rhythmic similarities with the Spanish dance form as described in this article, being in a constant 3/4 time with a prominent triplet on the second beat of every bar.
In some art music boleros the root lies, not in the bolero, but in the habanera, a Cuban precursor of the tango, which was a favourite dance rhythm in the mid-19th century, and occurs often in French opera and Spanish zarzuela of the 19th and 20th centuries.