1. The dancer Ida Rubinstein commissioned Boléro, originally asking for Ravel to orchestrate pieces from Albéniz’s Iberia. Instead, Ravel composed an original piece, which received its premiere at the Paris Opéra, November 22, 1928 by Mme Rubinstein’s troupe, Walther Straram conducting.
2. In an interview published in London’s Evening Standard, February 24, 1932, Ravel said, “I love going over factories and seeing vast machinery at work. It is awe-inspiring and great. It was a factory which inspired my Boléro. I would like it always to be played with a vast factory in the background.”
3. The first recording of Boléro, on four 78-rpm sides, was made in January 1930 at the Salle Pleyel, by a pick-up Paris orchestra under Piero Coppola, an Italian conductor and composer active in Paris in the 1920s and 30s who lived to sing the praises of Boléro into the 1970s. Ravel supervised the recording session, and when the orchestra began to record the final side Ravel stopped Coppola and made them start again because he felt the tempo had sped up. Despite this, the tempo on the final side was sped up anyway. The next day, Ravel recorded his own version of Boléro, and his was the only early record of the work that holds tempo throughout.
4. Ravel had a substantial record collection at his home in Montfort l’Amaury, outside Paris, including dozens of classical music works, a handful of popular recordings (e.g. a Pathé 78-rpm record of the Kentucky Singers performing “Tiger Rag”), and a few folklore recordings, notably of Egyptian popular songs, but only eight records of his own music, two of which were Boléro, one was Coppola’s record, the other was by an unnamed orchestra conducted by one H. Kemp.
5. Upon completing Boléro, Ravel received the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa from Oxford University, and appeared at the school in academic garb to accept the honor.
6. The American premiere of Boléro took place November 14, 1929, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony. The New York Times reported, “Boléro brought shouts and cheers from the audience and delayed the performance by prolonged applause. The craft, the virtuosity are really thrilling.” The performance is said to have made Ravel “almost an American national hero,” according to the liner notes to the first American recording of the work, “and caused such wild excitement and enthusiasm as had never been seen in American concert halls.”
7. Prior to the American premiere, Toscanini had already conducted the work several times in Europe, always with a faster tempo than Ravel’s score indicates, including an accelerated tempo near the end. Ravel openly objected to this practice of Toscanini’s. Then, following a performance at the Paris Opéra, Ravel refused to stand to accept the applause when Toscanini pointed him out in the audience. This led to what newspapers called the “Toscanini-Ravel affaire.” Typically, Ravel quickly sought to make amends with the Maestro. In a letter he explained, “I have always felt that if a composer does not participate in the performance of his work, he should avoid the applause, which should be directed only to the performer or the work, or both.” With this letter, the friendship between Ravel and Toscanini was restored.
8. Boléro has been used in eight commercial films. In 1934 George Raft danced to the work in Bolero, directed by Wesley Ruggles, and also staring Carol Lombard. In the 1941 French comedy Boléro, directed by Jean Boyer, an architect played by Arletty is driven batty by his neighbor continually playing Boléro on his phonograph. The 1950 Kurosawa film Rashomon includes an imitation of Boléro by Takashi Matsuyama. The 1973 William Fertik short film The Boléro won an Academy Award by wandering behind-the-scenes of L.A. to Ravel’s Boléro. The 1977 Italian animated film Allegro Non Troppo uses Boléro to illustrate the evolution of the human race, from primordial ooze to modern man. In the 1979 Blake Edwards film 10, Jenny, a woman who scores eleven on the scale of a perfect ten, played by the braided Bo Derek, requires that Boléro be played on her record player in order for her to get “in the mood.” Much to the distress of the philandering George Webber, played by Dudley Moore, the record keeps sticking at all the wrong times. The 1981 French film Les Uns et les autres, directed by Claude Lelouche, includes a complete performance of Boléro, with chorus, conducted by Michel Legrand, who slows the tempo down to a languid sixteen minutes and twenty seconds. In 1984, a film was made of the ice dancing World Championships held in Ottawa, at which the first prize was awarded to Jane Torville and Christopher Dean, who skated Boléro all the way to Olympic Gold.
9. Ravel, who was proud of the work, on Boléro: “Its theme and rhythm are repeated to the point of obsession without any picturesque intention. This theme…flows successively through the different instrumental groups in a continuous crescendo, and after being repeated, always in C major, breaks out towards the end in E major. Both the theme and the accompaniment were deliberately given a Spanish character. I have always had a predilection for Spanish things. You see, I was born near the Spanish border, and there is also another reason:” (he laughs) “my parents met in Madrid.”
10. At age 58, Ravel began suffering symptoms of cerebral anemia and aphasia, which included difficulty in speech and a partial loss of memory. He took several months off from work to rest, then in November 1933 returned to the conductor’s podium to lead the Pasdeloup Orchestra, as always standing bolt upright. It would be his final public performance. On the program was Boléro.