Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 22, 2013
Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

November 22, 1928: Boléro by Maurice Ravel is first performed. Dancer Ida Rubinstein asked Ravel to orchestrate some music for her using Iberia by Isaac Albéniz. There were some copyright issues so Ravel quit working on Iberia and began to rework one of his own pieces. He abandoned that and wrote an entirely new piece. The musical form was based on a Spanish dance – the bolero. The work was called Fandango, but the name soon changed to Boléro.

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral work with choreography for the premiere by Bronislava Nijinska. The Paris Opéra hosted the event with Walther Straram conducting. Ravel composed the piece with background percussion remaining unchanged while the top rhythm’s single theme played over it. The eighteen-bar sections were repeated twice as each different instrument in the large orchestra joined in. The key changed for some instruments half way through. Ravel said it took seventeen minutes to perform at the “correct” tempo.

Ravel was born in France in 1875. His mother was of Basque descent and his father was a Swiss inventor and industrialist. The family moved from Ciboure to Paris while Maurice was still an infant. He began piano lessons at age seven. His first piano recital was given in 1889 when he was fourteen. He was obviously an accomplished pianist but he preferred composing to playing. He was sent to the Conservatoire de Paris where he was awarded first prize in the piano competition in 1891. He was not so interested in the academic side of his schooling.

In the 1890s Ravel met Claude Debussy who was twelve years older. The older man both influenced and helped younger musicians. Ravel composed piano pieces which were often compared and contrasted to Debussy’s work. Ravel was a small, frail man and unable to enlist for World War I. He became a truck driver to help the war effort. He composed music as well. His most famous piece, Boléro, was written after an American tour showcasing his work. In 1932 he was involved in a taxi accident. He suffered a head injury and never fully recovered. He underwent experimental brain surgery in 1937. He survived the surgery, woke briefly, then lapsed into a coma and died. He was 62.

“As a child, I was sensitive to music – to every kind of music.” – Maurice Ravel

“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” – Maurice Ravel

“We are not made for marriage, we artists. We are seldom normal, and our life still less so.” – Maurice Ravel

“Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.” – The Scenario, as listed in the premiere program

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Ida Rubenstein was a Russian ballerina, actress, patron, and Belle Époque figure. The last item means Beautiful Era and was part of French and Belgian history dating from 1871 until the beginning of World War I. It was characterized by a feeling of optimism and goodwill both in France and abroad. Rubenstein was born to a wealthy Jewish family in the Ukraine in 1885 and orphaned at an early age. She made her ballet debut in 1908 when she danced as Salomé in Oscar Wilde’s work of the same name and stripped nude while performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. She was not considered a top tier ballerina as her training began too late. However, she was noted for her stage presence and work outside of dance. She was a beloved model for many of the era’s distinguished painters. She continued to dance until the beginning of World War II, often giving free concerts. She died in 1960 shortly before her 75th birthday.

Also on this day: Blackbeard – In 1718, Blackbeard the Pirate (alias for Edward Teach) was tracked down and killed.
China Clipper – In 1935, airmail service began.
The Ship – In 1869, Cutty Sark was launched.