06 June 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Ravel: “Boléro”

“I can walk in 120 and sing in 105; and if you ask me to sing in 105 now, I will manage it. If I get it wrong, I feel it with my whole body. And in the orchestra, if a solo comes in slower or faster, I sense it right away; it makes me feel uneasy.”
Karajan in 1989

Many quotes by himself and many reports by his contemporaries and biographers suggest that Karajan was obsessed with rhythm. It is also well-known that he had a great passion for engineering and for cars and other vehicles, for any machine that worked with the highest possible precision. It is therefore no wonder that he had a great fable for the work of a composer, who Igor Stravinsky named “l’horloger suisse (the Swiss watchmaker)”. Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” is one of the most popular pieces in classical music and it concerns rhythm to a great extent whereas its only two melodies are repeated 9 times in different instrumentations. Maybe that’s why Ravel said to Arthur Honegger: “I’ve only composed a single masterpiece, the ‘Boléro’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any music.” Originally written as a ballet and first performed in 1928, it soon found its way to the concert halls and is still one of the fascinating show-pieces for orchestra. The difficult challenge for a conductor of the “Boléro” is to choose the right tempo and stick to it precisely throughout the complete piece, which lasts about 15 minutes and is structured by only one rhythmical figure repeated by the snare drum 169 times in exactly the same way. Ravel wasn’t at all content with the tempo that Karajan’s great idol Arturo Toscanini chose in 1930. Assumably, very few people dared to yell at Toscanini, who was already over 60 years old. Ravel, who was eight years younger, did so after a concert in Paris.

Keeping an exact tempo was an ability Karajan had like few other conductors (if any) and he was proud of it. As he mentioned to Richard Osborne, it wasn’t a natural gift but the result of rigorous training. There are two other elements that are often associated with the “Boléro” – meditation and hypnosis. Both had a constant fascination for Karajan throughout his lifetime. Richard Osborne quoted Gareth Morris, flute player of the Philharmonia Orchestra, about Karajan conducting the “Boléro”:

“He hardly moved. As you know, ‘Boléro’ works by a simple additive process. With the eyes closed and the hands barely chest high, Karajan gave us the beat with a single finger, and even that barely moved. With each new addition, the hands moved fractionally higher It was a form of hypnosis, I suppose. What we sensed was the power of the music within him, and that was bound to affect us. So with each slight lift of the hands the tension became even greater. By the end of the piece, the hands were above his head. And the power of that final climax was absolutely colossal.”

Karajan started conducting the “Boléro” on 4 December 1937 in Aachen when Ravel was still alive. He conducted it in the 1940s with the French Orchestre Radio-Symphonique, the Vienna Symphony and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Between 1966 and 1985, Karajan performed the “Boléro” 23 times and recorded it three times exclusively with the Berlin Philharmonic. The 1985 New Years Eve Concert was his last performance and was also filmed. Richard Osborne offers an interesting interpretation of Karajan’s approach to “Boléro”:
“In later years Karajan would frequently list those works which left him emotionally drained for days to come: ‘Elektra’, Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, Mahler’s Sixth, the ‘Three Orchestral Pieces’ of Alban Berg, Honegger’s ‘Liturgique’. Much of this is war music, music that concerns itself with the gratuitous desecration and destruction of human life and values. ‘Boléro’ is too brief and too singular a piece to come into this category, but the frequency with which Karajan programmed it and the contexts in which he placed it suggests that it held a significance for him that went beyond that of a mere orchestral ‘étude’.”

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

“Conversations with Karajan” Edited with an Instroduction by Richard Osborne. Oxford University Press. 1989

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