by Drew Holmes
The composer was in in a pinch, no doubt about it. A friend who was a famous dancer commissioned him to write a piece for her upcoming ballet and he planned to orchestrate an existing piano composition. He set aside the summer to work on it but discovered another composer had already made an orchestration and the piece was no longer available to arrange.
So, he did what any reasonable person would do — he went on vacation. While on holiday, an idea occurred to him. The composer had an earworm he could not shake, so he called his friend over to the piano and with one finger played it. They agreed it had an insistent, mechanical quality, which the composer liked, so he dove into writing an original work exploring this simple theme.
This was the peak of the Machine age, a decade after the War to end all wars and a decade before the one that would eclipse it. The composer was fascinated with all things mechanical, so he decided to write an ode to the factory, envisioning sets and costumes that would elevate this era of mechanization. Just five short months later (blazing speed by his usual standards) the seventeen-minute piece was complete and ready to choreograph.
He had hoped the ballet would be set in a factory, not a Spanish tavern as was the scene before him. The premiere was well received with the shouting and stamping customary of the day, the warm reception disappointing the composer in this betrayal of his vision. Later told by his brother that one lone audience member was heard to shout “Rubbish, rubbish!”, he agreed replying “The old woman… she understood.”
Many artists have been known to misinterpret their own work, and this piece was no different. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the composer stated he intended a duration of seventeen minutes. Toscanini’s recording was thirteen minutes, twenty-five seconds. Stokowski’s closer to twelve. Heck, the composer himself recorded it in fifteen minutes, fifty seconds. Today most performances clock in around fifteen minutes.
The composer did not realize what widespread acclaim this piece would have nor intend it to become his best-known composition. Whether he underestimated its appeal or overestimated his audience is up for debate. What is undeniable is this work is one of the most popular pieces of music ever written.
It has been recorded hundreds of times and was featured at the torch lighting of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Torville and Dean struck gold in Sarajevo to a six-minute version of the tune, earning a perfect 6.0, while on the silver screen Dudley Moore gave Bo Derek a perfect 10 to its soundtrack.
The composer characterized his work as “A piece for orchestra, without any music.” He had intended to write a commentary on post World War I culture, a love letter to mechanization. He wrote a melody playable with one finger, barely modulated it, and explored the sameness of the tune over almost twenty iterations, including fifteen minutes of unchanging snare drum underneath it, a terror to percussionists since the day it was written.
In the end, the audiences’ interpretation of a work determines its artistic fate and concertgoers are still mesmerized by this piece. When they hear it, they do not imagine a cold, sterile factory, but instead are transported to a Spanish tavern with a female dancer moving sensually to its persistent beat.
Years after its premier, the composer, Maurice Ravel, was at the casino in Monte-Carlo. When asked if he would like to gamble, he declined, replying regretfully “I wrote Bolero and won. I’ll let it go at that.” The piece for which he will always be remembered, but never understood.