'Bolero' by Maurice Ravel Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Bolero' by Maurice Ravel

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Try saying the following:

Dum diddly dum diddly dum dum
Dum diddly dum diddly diddly diddly

Now repeat that steadily without a break for 15 minutes. That's the challenge given to the snare drummer in Maurice Ravel's best-known composition, Boléro. This piece consists of two tunes repeated over and over again above this insistent drum rhythm. It starts very quietly on one or two instruments but gradually grows in volume until the full orchestra plays the tune as loudly as possible. The piece ends with a dramatic flourish which usually evokes a rousing cheer from the audience.

Boléro has been described as 'a piece for orchestra without music' by none other than Ravel himself. The two tunes are passed around the orchestra, being played on many different instruments including saxophone, bassoon and flutes. This change of instrument and the steady increase in volume provide the only variation in the apparently endless repetition of the music. Only once, near the end, is there a break, with a sudden change of key announcing the finale. The endless repetition is supposed to produce a hypnotic effect which heightens the drama of the ending.

Boléro was written in 1928 after it was commissioned by the dancer, Ida Rubinstein, as a 'choreographed poem'. She danced throughout the first performance. Nowadays, it is always performed as a pure musical piece. At the first performance, one woman in the audience commented about Ravel, 'the man is mad'. Ravel's reply was 'only she realised the truth!'.

Boléro is familiar to modern audiences through its use in former British ice skating champions Torvill and Dean's 1980s ice dance routines. It also featured in the film 10 where it was Bo Derek's choice as an accompaniment for a different extended rhythmic activity. It is also a frequent favourite for inclusion in popular classical music concerts.

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