Scouting Out the Cordon to Hear Ravel

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Summer music – Ravel’s Boléro. © Charles Thibo

It all started with a fraud. We were three students: Ellen, Thomas and myself. It must have been in July during our last year at university or the year before. It was hot, and we were desperately looking for a way to sneak into an open air classic concert. Officially, the concert was sold out. Tickets were available on the black market, but at a price that none of us was willing to pay. So we scouted out the cordon around the Königsplatz in Munich to see if there was any spot through which we could enter the concert area. There wasn’t. Police and security teams everywhere, fences, barriers – no trespassing.

He who dares…

But I had that expired press card from the newspaper I occasionally had worked for. All three of us worked as freelance reporters. So we came up with a ruse. We would be a Luxembourg press team, speaking only French. And if anyone asked for an official accreditation, we would say that we had just returned from another assignment and that the accreditation letter had got stuck in the newsroom. We summoned all our courage, walked up to the next policeman and I started making a fuss… in French. The man didn’t understand a word, and I started waving my invalid press ID. The officer was lost, and since it was really hot, he just waved us through. We walked towards the last row of seats, but then the policeman returned… and pointed to the first seat row!

A fraud then, in the name of love for classical music. It was a wonderful concert and it closed with Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro”. Aaah, Ravel! That open air concert was my first encounter with this composer, and I will never forget the evening when I heard the “Boléro” performed live in front of some 5000 people. What struck me was the hypnotic effect that this piece invariably has on attentive listeners. That wasn’t necessarily Ravel’s intention, but in the end this piece is exactly this: a sound experiment leading into trance.

The hypnotic effect of the Boléro

How did Ravel achieve this? Well, he stripped classical music of all those add-ons it had acquired over 300 years: chords, floral ornaments, counter-point, the traditional structure of themes, variations thereof, developments. Ravel would start with two simple melodies, A and B, played alternatively. Melody A would be whispered by a single instrument first, the flute, repeated with another instrument added, the clarinet. The bassoon would introduce melody B, repeated by the clarinet. Then, tune A would be played again and over time, the piece would become louder and louder with more instruments being added, insistent, obsessive, even violent at the end.

17 minutes in C major. 17 minutes that made this piece one of the most popular of all classical compositions. It appeals to young and old, professionals and amateurs, and if you have heard it once, you can whistle it on the street and everybody will recognize it. Actually, I listened to a performance of the “Boléro” by the London Symphony Orchestra while typing this post and I caught myself whistling melody A for the rest of the day.

Ravel wrote it in the summer of 1928, and initially it was meant to become the signature tune of a ballet in the Spanish style. The Russian dancer and choreographer Ida Rubinstein had asked Ravel to compose such a ballet, and Ravel’s first idea was to use six transcriptions for orchestra of the piano suite “Iberia”, written by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz a few years earlier. However, there was a legal issue with copyrights related to Albeniz’ work.

Two (or three) irascible artists

“These [copyright] laws are insane”, Ravel said at the time. “I’ve got work to do.” He was afraid of Ida Rubinstein’s reaction. “What will Ida say?”, he said according to the pianist and composer Joaquin Nin. “She will be furious.” The choreographer obviously was as irascible as the composer. Time was pressing, and so Ravel decided to write and orchestrate a piece himself respecting Rubinstein’s wish for a Spanish dance, easy to remember for the audience and thus bound to become either very popular or a total failure. Ravel’s “Boléro” became a total success, but the composer was not happy. “My masterpiece? The ‘Boléro’ obviously!” he once snapped. “Unfortunately, it is void of any music.”

Perhaps he remembered that once he had reproached the Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov to create a whole with nothing. Now he was to found out that the audience actually expected him to write precisely such an “empty” piece. He was caught in a dilemma: the piece’s high popularity and its musical simplicity. However, initial rejection turned into pride just within a year. In 1930, Ravel would have a serious quarrel with the conductor Arturo Toscanini about the “Boléro”. Ravel would yell after a concert: “That pig has played the piece too fast. That’s unacceptable.” To which Toscanini would reply: “You know nothing about music. This is the only way to perform your piece.”

© Charles Thibo

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4 thoughts on “Scouting Out the Cordon to Hear Ravel”

  1. Brilliant story! Who dares all wins all.

    When I first heard BOLERO, as a young teenager, I thought it represented the beginning of LIFE. One vibration, one rhythm, repeating, gathering momentum, developing, growing, expanding ad infinitum.

    Then, years later, my first husband frowned and said the piece represented destruction and chaos.

    I’m sticking to my youthful impression.

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