Ravel wrote his Boléro for the dancer and choreographer Ida Rubinstein. A “boléro” is a Spanish song form with a particular rhythm for which Cubans created a dance. In concert form Boléro has become one of Ravel’s most popular works. On the surface it is just the same melodies repeated over and over again in one long crescendo leading to a crashing finale. But Ravel used it to demonstrate his genius for extracting unlimited variety and color from the instruments of the orchestra.
The first sound you hear is the snare drum playing a two bar, eight beat, rhythmic pattern: the boléro rhythm. It will be repeated without change up to the penultimate bar, 169 times. The only two melodies in the entire work follow; the first melody repeated twice (a a) then the second melody repeated twice (b b). That block of music (a a b b) is then repeated four times, but we hear each melody nine times because in the closing fifth section the two melodies are played only once. In this coda the harmony and the key finally deviate from C major, although up to that point Ravel has squeezed almost everything possible within the key of C.
Ravel’s goal in Boléro was not the classic symphonic procedure of developing contrasting musical themes for dramatic effect. Boléro’s two themes never change, only the instruments playing them; solo flute, clarinet, bassoon, but also uncommon instruments: a high pitched saxophone and two Baroque era instruments, the oboe d’amore and the “Bach” trumpet. Various combinations of brass, woodwinds, and strings also take part, but at certain points you might wonder, “What is making that sound?” Ravel sets the themes with the various instruments playing in parallel thirds, fifths, and sixths. You do not hear it as “harmony,” however, you hear a unified acoustical effect different from the way the combination of instruments would sound in unison and octaves. With the barest of musical material Ravel produced a masterpiece of sound and timbre, an aural Michelangelo or Renoir.