Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cheesy Classical Music You Should Know: Ravel's Bolero (Part II)

Here's what Uncle Fred had to say about Ravel's Bolero: "It's the most descriptive sex music ever written."

According to his niece-in-law Jenny, played by Bo Derek in 10, "he proved it." To anyone with qualms about pedophilia (I'm firmly in this camp), Jenny's little story, meant to seduce poor hapless George (Dudley Moore), is uncomfortable, to say the least. (The whole movie gives me the creeps.)

Although he was an incestuous cad, Uncle Fred had a point about Bolero. As mentioned in an earlier post, the piece opens with the snare drum playing the distinctive rhythmic pattern of the Spanish dance it's named after. The seductive flute melody that enters shortly after sets in motion a gradual blossoming to a climactic finale; as that rhythm pulses below, the melody repeats, the orchestration expands, and the music becomes ever more incessant and powerful. It's hard not to get all worked up when you listen to it.

Bolero set Ravel for life financially. It's hard to believe that the composer didn't know he had a crowd pleaser on his hands, but he did express doubts that no one would want to hear it as anything more than ballet music. For Ravel, it was a chance to show off his chops as an orchestrator, an "experiment in a very special and limited direction."

Some critics didn't care for the piece in the few years after its 1928 premiere. Writing for the American Mercury in 1932, Edward Robinson called the piece "the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music" that sounds like "the wail of an obstreperous back-alley cat." Even today, a lot of critics look down on the piece, and programmers tend to consider it to be fluff. Fortunately, lots of orchestras still play it.