Video Activity: Ravel’s Bolero

1) The first piece of music discussed in this chapter, by Debussy, was turned into music for a ballet, and the last piece, Ravel’s Bolero, was created as a ballet. Obviously, speed or tempo is very important to dance, whether you’re moving to a waltz or to electronic dance music (EDM). But composers and conductors don’t always agree on what the correct tempo is for a particular classical piece. A composer might indicate a tempo by giving it a metronome marking, but a conductor can ignore that and place his or her own stamp on the interpretation.

Watch two different videos of one and the same choreography of Ravel’s Bolero (1928). The costumes, scenery, and dance steps are exactly the same in both. Only the tempo of the music is different. Watch some of the beginning and particularly the end of each video.

Which performance—the first or the second—has the faster tempo, and which do you think makes for a more effective expression of the dance?




2) This question of tempo, and musical interpretation generally, forces an interesting question: Who should choose the tempo: the creator (composer) or the interpreter (conductor)? This point was at issue in a heated exchange between composer Maurice Ravel and famous conductor Arturo Toscanini after the American premiere of Bolero in 1929. Ravel thought Toscanini took the music far too fast. What do you think? Who should determine the tempo, dynamic levels, and shaping of a piece of music?