Ravel’s Boléro

Program Notes

Schumann: Violin Concerto in D Minor
Dutilleux: Métaboles
Bizet: Symphony in C
Ravel: Boléro

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Robert Schumann
1810–56

Violin Concerto in D Minor

Work composed: 1853
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: Solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 31 minutes

“This concerto is the missing link of the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos, though leaning more towards Brahms. Indeed, one finds in both the same human warmth, caressing softness, bold manly rhythms, the same lovely arabesque treatment of the violin, the same rich and noble themes and harmonies.” – violinist Yehudi Menuhin

“The concerto should never be brought into the open.” – Clara Schumann

For many years, the circumstances of Robert Schumann’s short life and tragic death overshadowed most attempts to evaluate his music on its own terms. 19th and 20th century critics and biographers “heard” instability and weakness in Schumann’s music, particularly with regard to the late works.

In his early 20s, Schumann began to experience periods of paralyzing depression. Over the next 20 years, these episodes increased in frequency, and often prevented him from working. Toward the end of his life, Schumann also suffered from persistent auditory hallucinations and manic episodes.

In 1853, 22-year-old virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim asked Robert Schumann for a violin concerto. Schumann, impressed with the young man’s musicality and skill, immediately agreed. In less than a month, the composer presented Joachim with not one but two works: a Violin Phantasie, Op. 131, and the D Minor Violin Concerto.

Everyone in Schumann’s inner circle – his wife Clara, his close friend Johannes Brahms, and Joachim himself – thought the Phantasie excellent, and the violinist made it a regular part of his concert repertoire. The concerto, however, proved disappointing. Joachim never performed it himself, and refused to loan the manuscript to any other violinist, because he believed “it is not equal in rank with so many of [Schumann's] glorious creations.” When Schumann died in 1856, both Clara and Brahms agreed to suppress the concerto. Clara particularly disliked the work, claiming it “showed definite traces of [Schumann’s] last illness.” In accordance with Clara’s wishes, Brahms omitted the concerto when he edited Schumann’s complete works for publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in the 1880s. 

The D Minor Violin Concerto ended up in the Prussian State Library, its existence unknown to all but a handful of people. In 1933, Joachim’s grandniece Jelly d’Aranyi, also a virtuoso violinist, claimed the spirits of Schumann and Joachim told her to find the lost Concerto during a séance. Whether d’Aranyi knew of the concerto’s existence before this revelation is unclear. Eventually the Concerto came to light and premiered in 1937 in Nazi Germany. D’Aranyi gave the London premiere the following year, while Yehudi Menuhin, barred by the Nazis from performing in Germany because of his Jewish ancestry, presented the concerto in the United States in 1938.

“The concerto is a treasure, and I am completely enchanted!” Menuhin exclaimed. “It is real Schumann, romantic and fresh and so logically interconnected in every impulse. Thoroughly mentally healthy throughout … Perhaps one was startled at the time by the audacious harmonies which today’s ears do not find at all surprising. I hope there were better reasons than that for putting Schumann into an insane asylum!” Unfortunately, Menuhin’s unqualified praise did not overcome the persistent idea that Schumann’s Violin Concerto was a lesser work tainted by the mental instability of its composer, a perception that lingers to this day.

If a listener unfamiliar with Schumann’s backstory heard this concerto for the first time, what would they hear? For Schumann’s contemporaries, the concerto’s content did not conform to the style they knew as Schumann’s, so they made an understandable, if erroneous, assumption to explain its “anomalies.” The elements of this concerto – the melancholy quality of the first two movements; the exquisitely beautiful sadness of the second movement’s solo violin melody; the seamless transition from second movement to third (and the shift of mood from D minor to D major) – could be the result of Schumann’s creative evolution rather than proof of his mental disintegration.

In a 2013 article in The Spectator, journalist Damian Thompson asked, “Does knowing the underlying pathology diminish its artistic value? I don’t think so. For too long, Schumann’s notorious ‘softening of the brain’ has tarnished the violin concerto and therefore deprived listeners of a triumph of the human spirit – and one of the loveliest and saddest pieces of music ever written.”

 

Henri Dutilleux
1916–2013

Métaboles

Work composed: 1959–64
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: April 3, 2006; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, Chinese cymbal, cow bell, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, 2 tam-tams, temple blocks, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 18 minutes

Métaboles was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, and was first performed by that orchestra under the direction of George Szell in January 1965. Dutilleux deliberated over the title for some time. The music grew from Dutilleux’ interest in the concept of metamorphosis, but Dutilleux shied away from the title “Metamorphosis,” as several other composers, Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss among them, had previously written works with that name. Eventually Dutilleux settled on the idea of metabolism – the gradual transformation of an element into a completely different entity – to convey his musical ideas.

The five movements of Métaboles flow into one another without pause, each movement evolving itself into the next. The Incantatoire declares itself with distinctive calls from the winds rippling outward like disturbed water. The strings echo this opening phrase, which recurs, slightly altered, throughout the movement, until it segues into Linéaire. The string section, subdivided into ever-smaller groups, plays in a hushed manner, as if hovering over silence. In Obsessionnel, the mood changes to one of expectancy, punctuated by comments from bassoon and brasses. This anticipation gives way to fuller exclamations from brasses, percussion, and pizzicato strings before subsiding into Torpide. Brasses, winds, and percussion create a somnolent, almost humid atmosphere, and the music’s lethargy suggests a slow-moving stream on a hot summer’s day. In the closing Flamboyant, hurried, breathless sounds build in intensity until, with brassy bleats and pounding timpani, Dutilleux breaks the form of his “progressive growth” by returning to the music of the Incantatoire.

 

Georges Bizet
1838–75

Symphony in C

Work composed: 1855
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February 18, 2008; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 32 minutes 

Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, his best-known work for orchestra, was written when the composer was a 17-year-old student at the Paris Conservatoire. Unpublished during Bizet’s lifetime, the Symphony was unknown until 1933, when it was discovered among a collection of Bizet’s manuscripts. Felix Weingartner conducted the first performance on February 26, 1935, in Basel, Switzerland, and the Symphony quickly became an audience favorite. 12 years later, the Symphony in C achieved new fame when choreographer Georges Balanchine used it for his eponymous ballet.

The symphony is constructed along Classical lines: a standard four-movement structure with two fast outer movements, a lyrical second movement, and a dance-oriented third. Bizet’s melodies combine the balanced, effervescent style of Mozart with the operatic lyricism of Charles Gounod. “You were the beginning of my life as an artist,” Bizet wrote to Gounod some years after finishing the Symphony in C, which the younger composer modeled on Gounod’s own First Symphony. Bizet’s youthful “borrowing” from Gounod may explain why Bizet discarded the Symphony in C after its completion and made no attempt to either publish or perform it during his own lifetime.

The Allegro vivo sparkles with rhythmic vitality and bursts of color from different sections of the orchestra; this contrasts with a lyrical melody for solo oboe, which dashes to-and-fro before returning to the opening theme. In the Adagio, the oboe plays a graceful, slightly melancholy air over pizzicato strings. The violins take over with a second lilting melody, followed by a return to the opening theme. Strings begin the Menuetto with a jaunty proclamation, combining a fast scherzo tempo with the nimbleness of an old-style minuet; a contrasting trio features an Austrian ländler, a peasant version of the waltz. In the closing Allegro vivace, the quicksilver movement of the strings collides with a more polished, lyrical second theme that foreshadows the operatic melodic writing for which Bizet later became famous.

 

Maurice Ravel
1875–1937

Boléro

Work composed: 1928
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 11, 2015; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration:14 minutes 

From the snare drum’s opening notes, even before the infamous melody begins, we instantly recognize Boléro. This oddly compelling music has entered popular culture through various media: the 1979 film 10, numerous television commercials, and the gold medal-winning performance by ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Maurice Ravel would not have been surprised by Boléro’s enduringpopularity; while he worked on it, the composer commented, “The piece I am working on will be so popular, even fruit peddlers will whistle it in the street.” Originally a ballet commission from Ida Rubenstein, formerly of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Boléro was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, and featured a Gypsy woman dancing on a table in a Spanish tavern, who whips her audience into uncontrolled sexual frenzy.

Rubenstein’s ballet was successful, but Boléro’s lasting fame came in the concert hall, most notably from a controversial performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1930. Not all listeners were seduced, however. One critic described Boléro as “... the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music … it is simply the incredible repetition of a single rhythm ... and above it is the blatant recurrence of an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune.”

In response, Ravel wrote a letter in 1931 to the London Daily Telegraph: “It [Boléro] is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music – of one long, very gradual crescendo ... I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.”

In 2012, the award-winning science podcast Radiolab presented an episode titled “Unraveling Bolero,” which suggested that Ravel might have been experiencing early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia (a degenerative brain disease involving the frontal lobe of the brain), as he wrote Boléro. One aspect of this disease manifests as an obsessive need for repetition, which is reflected in Boléro’s complete lack of thematic or rhythmic musical development. Six years after finishing Boléro, Ravel began to forget words and lose short-term memory. By 1935, two years before his death, he could no longer write or speak.

 

© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com