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ARSCLIST  August 2003

ARSCLIST August 2003

Subject:

Re: Bolero by Ravel the definitive version?

From:

George Brock-Nannestad <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Fri, 8 Aug 2003 12:04:58 +0200

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (95 lines)

From: Patent Tactics, George Brock-Nannestad

Aaron Levinson originally asked:

> I was wondering whether anyone on this list might be able to steer
> in the direction of any performance of >Bolero by Ravel< that is considered
> the benchmark upon which other are judged?

----- and a spate of responses appeared. David S. Sager commented on trombone
performance, and Karl Miller fortunately reproduced an early reference, and I
am going to do the same.

Nicholas Slonimsky: "Slonimsky's Book of Musical Anectotes" (originally
issued in 1948, but now available from Routledge), pp. 187-8:

"           The Bolero

      For many years Ravel was a great composer without
money. His music was highly regarded by cultured audi-
ences all over the world, but he had failed to establish
contact with the masses. Then in 1928 he wrote a dance
piece in Spanish 3/4 time called Bolero. The remarkable
feature of this work was that it went on for seventeen
minutes in the same rhythm, with the same tune and in
the same key of C major, outside of a brief digression
into E major toward the very end. It was little noticed
in Paris when Ida Rubinstein danced to it on November
22, 1928, but in repeated performances as a concert
piece, the popularity of Bolero spread like wildfire. The
crowning success came when it was arranged for a jazz
band. It was the first piece of serious music that pene-
trated the lower regions of musical culture. Ravel himself
was as much bewildered by this sudden leap into popular
glory as anybody else. He was eager that his purpose in
writing Bolero should not be misconstrued. In a letter
to the English music critic, Calvocoressi, Ravel wrote:

        "I am particularly desirous that there should be no mis-
understanding as to my Bolero. It is an experiment in a very
special and limited direction ans should not be suspected of
aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything
more than that which it actually does achieve. Before the
first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what
I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and
consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music - of
one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and
there is practically no invention except in the plan and man-
ner of execution. The themes are impersonal - folk tunes of
the usual Spanish-Arabian kind. Whatever may have been
said to the contrary, the orchestral treatment is simple and
straightforward throughout without the slightest attempt
at virtuosity. . . . I have done exactly what I set out to do,
and it is for listeners to take it or leave it."

[and now Slonimsky introduces a fascinating means of distinguishing between
the composer's intentions and performers' interpretations (as well as
involving microphone placement in later years)]

    There is an instrumental effect in the score of Bolero
that is unique. It is a forced change of tone color in the
solo instrument, the French horn, by bolstering up the
natural overtones through their doubling by two piccolos.
One piccolo takes the third partial tone and the other
the fifth partial. In fact, the piccolo parts are written in
G major and E major, while the theme is in C. The effect
is not that of consecutive major chords in open harmony,
but the enhancement of the corresponding partials in
the tone of the French horn. Ravel marks pianissimo for
the piccolo palying in E, and mezzo piano for the one in
G, to imitate the relative strength of natural overtones,
while the horn solo is to be played mezzo forte. If per-
formed correctly, the tone color of the solo horn will
suffer a change that must be a surprise to the player
himself. Unfortunately, the dynamics indicated by Ravel
are rarely observed, and the piccolos are permitted to
play loud, thus killing the intended effect. "

Now, this is heart-warming to an old acoustician like myself, because it
permits us to use our ears in deciding the degree to which a performer
adheres to the spirit of the composer.

Obiously it is permissible for an artist (conductor) to experiment, and
greater insight will be obtained thereby (e.g. I would not miss Glenn Gould's
reproduction of the Rondo alla Turca by Mozart, precisely because it clashes
with our standard conceptions). However, if we are looking for a standard to
judge Bolero performances by, I would look for a performance lasting 17
minutes and having the dynamic relationships between piccolos and French horn
prescribed by Ravel. We have to bear in mind that French wind and brass
playing is in a separate tradition, but it cannot mean that nobody else can
play French music.

Kind regards, and enjoyable listening,

George

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