Maurice Ravel: Boléro (or) A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra

Maurice Ravel

First, a word about the subtitle. A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra was my idea obviously, not Ravel’s, inspired by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide which I featured here last month. Having done my best in that post to introduce young people to the orchestra, I feel duty-bound to do the same for grown-ups, and can think of no better way than through Ravel’s Boléro, which shares at least this much in common with Britten’s famous work: both feature the instruments of the orchestra, either in extended solo passages or together with other instruments, in ways designed to showcase their unique voices and character. To be sure, Britten approaches this objective in a more comprehensive, methodical fashion, but his aims were both musical and didactic, while Ravel’s were strictly musical.

Music historian, university professor, and author Betsy Schwarm wrote the following description of Boléro, to which I have added some time stamps from the video below.

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral work composed by Maurice Ravel, known for beginning softly and ending, according to the composer’s instructions, as loudly as possible. Commissioned by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, Boléro was first performed at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with a dance choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The work has been featured in many films since its creation, and was an integral part of the plot in Blake Edwards’ 1979 film “10”, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.

Initially, Rubinstein asked Ravel to create for her a work with Spanish character, suggesting that he – a highly skilled orchestrator who six years earlier had reworked Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – might adapt for orchestra some piano pieces by the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz. But after some consideration, Ravel instead wrote his own original composition, a piece he called Boléro – though some observed that the rhythms were more like those of the fandango and seguidilla than the bolero. At its debut Rubinstein herself took the solo role of a sultry café dancer enticing her masculine audience, whose growing excitement is reflected in the work’s signature crescendo.

Boléro is a set of 18 variations on an original two-part theme – or perhaps, more properly speaking, 18 orchestrations of that theme – for the theme itself does not change, though the instruments do. After an opening rhythm on the snare drum (a rhythm that continues unabated throughout the work, and which always makes me think of castanets – DR), the piece proceeds as follows:

  1. [0:40] solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
  2. [1:30] solo clarinet (also low in the range)
  3. [2:20] solo bassoon (high in its range)
  4. [3:10] solo E-flat clarinet (smaller and higher in pitch than the standard B-flat clarinet)
  5. [4:00] solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
  6. [4:50] muted trumpet and flute (the flute floating like overtones parallel to the trumpet’s line)
  7. [5:40] solo tenor saxophone (an unusual inclusion in an orchestra, but Ravel liked jazz)
  8. [6:30] solo soprano saxophone (a small, straight, high-pitched saxophone)
  9. [7:20] French horn and celesta (the bell-like tones of the latter parallel to the horn’s line)
  10. [8:08] quartet composed of clarinet and three double-reeds (a combination organlike in timbre)
  11. [8:58] solo trombone (replete with sensuously sliding passages)
  12. [9:49] high woodwinds (growing more strident in tone)

With variation 13 [10:38], the strings finally emerge from their background role to take the lead for the remaining variations. The crescendo continues to build; the drumbeat persists, becoming ever more prominent. Before long, trumpet accents are added, contributing to the intensity until, in the final moments, the full orchestra is tossed into the mix – trombones, cymbals, and all – bringing the piece to an exultant, if abrupt, conclusion.

Notes by Betsy Schwarm

In this video, Valery Gergiev (pronounced va-ler-y ger-gyev) leads the London Symphony Orchestra. You will notice that Gergiev doesn’t conduct with a baton, as most conductors do, nor with his bare hands, as he does in my post of his performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. “But what,” I hear you ask, “is with the toothpick?” I confess, I don’t know why he conducts with a toothpick. Some have suggested that he uses it as a protest against those who have criticised him for not using a baton when he conducts, just his hands. Others have said that he began using a toothpick after his baton flew into the orchestra or the audience. Still others have postulated that using a toothpick requires the musicians to watch the conductor more attentively. I haven’t found a definitive answer, which may have to wait until Gergiev himself addresses this question.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this extraordinary performance of one of Ravel’s many masterpieces.

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Published in: on December 31, 2017 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Stravinsky: The Firebird

The Firebird by  Lev Lominago

The Firebird by Lev Lominago

Has there ever been a more fruitful collaboration than the one between Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and composer Igor Stravinsky?  Between 1910 and 1923, they brought to life no fewer than five ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, and Les NocesPetrushka and The Rite of Spring have already appeared on this blog, and one day I may decide to feature Pulcinella and Les Noces as well.  Today, however, I want to go back to the beginning, to The Firebird, the first collaboration between these two and Stravinsky’s first work of lasting importance.

Stravinsky began composing The Firebird in the fall of 1909 in response to a commission from Diaghilev, who was eager for a new work for the upcoming season of his Ballets Russes.  He completed it in April 1910, and it premiered in Paris on June 25.  That premiere was a resounding success; indeed, I can’t imagine anyone not being swept away by the combination of Stravinsky’s dramatic score and the dancers of the Ballets Russes.

The story of The Firebird has been nicely summarized by Phillip Huscher, Program Annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:

Fokine’s adaptation of the fairy tale pits the Firebird, a good fairy, against the ogre Kashchei, whose soul is preserved as an egg in a casket.  A young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei’s magic garden in pursuit of the Firebird.  When he captures her, she pleads for her release and gives him one of her feathers, whose magic will protect him from harm.  He then meets thirteen princesses, all under Kashchei’s spell, and falls in love with one of them.  When he tries to follow them into the magic garden, a great carillon sounds an alarm and he is captured.  Kashchei is about to turn Ivan to stone when the prince waves the feather; the Firebird appears.  Her lullaby puts Kashchei to sleep, and she then reveals the secret of his immortality.  Ivan opens the casket and smashes the egg, killing Kashchei.  The captive princesses are freed, and Ivan and his beloved princess are betrothed.

My own introduction to The Firebird was a 1962 recording by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stravinsky himself.  In the liner notes to that record, Stravinsky writes at length about the origins of The Firebird, and gives his own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses:

Though the orchestral body of the Firebird was wastefully large, I was more proud of some of the orchestration than of the music itself.  The trombone glissandi in the Kastchei scene produced the biggest sensation with the audience, of course, but this effect was not original with me – Rimsky had used trombone slides, I think in Mlada, and Schoenberg in his tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande, to site earlier but less popular examples.  For me the most striking effect in the Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando [at 1:56 in the video below] which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine’s wheel.  I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky’s violinist and cellist sons.  I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin.

This video, recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, goes a long way toward capturing the excitement and presence of a live performance.  Visually, if not aurally, we have the best seat in the house.  The many close-ups of the soloists in the Vienna Philharmonic reveal a thousand small details that we might otherwise miss, and make it easy to appreciate Stravinsky’s pride in his orchestration.  We see firsthand the concentration on the faces of the musicians and the extraordinary involvement of the conductor, Valery Gergiev, who, conducting without a baton, seems to employ a sign language all his own.

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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