Tortoise Tuesday: Thesis and Structure in Ravel’s Bolero

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a friend of mine, an oboist, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero came up in the conversation.

“How in the world,” she asked, after we had talked about it for a few minutes, “does Ravel build a fifteen minute piece out of so little music at all?”

I had never thought about it before, but once my friend brought it up, we both agreed it was not an easy question to answer. The Bolero has three main motifs — three theses, if you like. First comes the motor rhythm on the snare, which begins in the first bar of the piece and continues virtually unchanged until the end:

The second motif, introduced by the flute, is the primary major melody:

The third and final motif — which my friend and I affectionately called the snake-charmer theme — is introduced by the bassoon and weaves in and out of the major-key passages:

The Bolero is composed entirely of the interplay between these three motifs, varying only the instrumentation. Though, in a written work of comparable length — say, ten pages — three distinct “theses” would almost certainly be excessive, in a piece of music, to have only three motifs carry an entire piece is almost unheard of. Listen to a Beethoven symphony, and you will hear countless themes introduced, and then varied in key and texture until they are almost unrecognizable. Even in a Bach sonata, the epitome of simplicity, the structure is relatively involved, bursting with Escher-like variations that turn one motif into the next without giving you time to notice how the change came about. There is no such variation in the Bolero. And yet somehow, there seems nothing strained or contrived about the piece. With its gradual increase in intensity from the voice of a single snare at pianissimo to a full orchestra at forte, the Bolero holds our attention from the first bar to the last.

By its simple yet flawless execution, the Bolero reminds us that writing of any kind — analytic or creative, literary or musical — need not be complex to be compelling. While there is something to be said for the “broad”, “multi-faceted”, or “comprehensive” thesis, such a thesis is also very easy to mishandle. Too often, we lose control of our argument in the rush to say everything at once. Through the understated structure of the Bolero, we see that it is sometimes better — though certainly, no less difficult — to confine ourselves to the exploration of a single theme. As anyone who has listened all the way to Ravel’s raucous final measures will attest, the simplest construction is often the strongest of all.

–Isabella Khan ’21