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Classical Sprouts: Ravel's 'Boléro'

"Boléro" starts off simply with one repeated theme, but then it keeps going. And going. And going!

And it doesn’t go anywhere! And it’s amazing!

How did composer Maurice Ravel write a piece of music that lasts for 15 whole minutes and only has one rhythm and melody? Let's find out!

Ravel was approached by one of his friends, the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein, who asked him to write a Spanish-inspired ballet score, but he hadn’t had any ideas yet.

But then, he was on vacation on the French coast.

He was getting ready to go for a swim when he plunked out a melody on a piano.

He asked his friend: “Don’t you think that has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”

And, that’s what he did. He repeated it 169 times!

The melody is in C major, and (spoiler alert) doesn’t change until the very, very end of the piece.

It starts out really quiet, or pianissimo.

The melody is passed between instruments - first flute, then clarinet.. Later, some saxophones, and then every instrument gets a turn, all the while getting louder, and louder and louder!

The snare drums continue throughout, until almost all of the instruments are playing the melody at fortissimo!

And then at the end... IT CHANGES!

And then… it’s over.

When "Boléro" was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1928, it was said that the premiere was accompanied by a shouting, stamping, cheering audience, including a woman who yelled: “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”).

When Ravel was told this afterwards, apparently he replied: “That lady… she understood.”

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Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is IPR's digital content manager and is the producer of "Classical Sprouts" and "Kids Commute".