By Milt Stevens
National Symphony Orchestra
October 26, 2001
When asked to write about the first trombone solo in Ravel’s “Boléro” for the ITA Journal, I accepted the project willingly. I have enjoyed reading this column, and I am delighted to add my thoughts on Boléro. I will also have the opportunity to read the comments written by my colleagues. On occasions when we meet each other backstage at a concert or informally at conventions, we usually talk about good guest conductors or fine wines. Normally, we don’t exchange ideas about trombone playing. So, I await this publication to see if we for the most part agree or disagree. I also keep in mind that, as with most of life, we continue to be students, in the sense that we keep our minds open to new concepts and are not so entrenched with an idea that we cannot change.
For a bit of background information, it is significant to note that Ravel’s mother was Spanish, coming from the Basque region. Not coincidentally, several Ravel compositions have a Spanish influence or origin: “L’heure espagnole,” “Rapsodie espagnole,” and “Boléro.”
Derived from folk dancing in Spain during the late eighteenth century, the Boléro was a dance in triple meter (three beats to the bar), punctuated by triplet rhythms typically played by castanets or tambourines. Ravel was certainly not the only classical western composer to structure a work using the Boléro dance rhythms. There are Boléros by Beethoven, Weber, and Chopin. The important point is that the dance, whether performed solo or by a couple, is earthy and explicit. Ravel’s “Boléro,” premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1928, was written for the ballerina Ida Rubinstein. Rubinstein portrays a Gypsy woman, whose solo dancing on a table in a café rouses passions among the onlookers.
In order to perform correctly and appropriately the trombone solo at rehearsal number 10 in Boléro, it helps to understand how the work is constructed. Ravel was careful to point out that this piece was “not a composition, but an exercise in orchestration.” A letter translated and published in the London Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1931 from Ravel states: “Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting 17 minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except in the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are impersonal—folk tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, the orchestral treatment is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity. It is a dance whose pace is very steady and uniform, as much in the melody and harmony as the rhythm, which the snare drum beats out all the time. The orchestral crescendo provides the only variation.”
After a quiet “pp” 4 bar introduction of the rhythm played by a snare drum and a simple harmonic background played by violas and ‘celli, the “A” theme, first played very quietly (“pp”) by the solo flute, starts on a c-natural, proceeds in a curvaceous, mostly descending manner for 16 measures, and ends an octave below on a “c”. There is always a two bar “fill” between the solo presentations, but the sinewy “A” theme is next given to the clarinet, which plays the tune in a soft piano dynamic (“p”).
The “B” theme, which the trombonist eventually plays later on, is presented twice in succession—first by the bassoon, and then by the e-flat clarinet. Whereas the simple, folk-like “A” theme covers only the range of an octave plus a step (it’s top note is a “d-natural” above the initial “c”), the “B” theme starts on a high b-flat, ascends a minor third to d-flat, and works its way gradually lower for 18 measures to a low “c”. A more emphatic and determined tune, the “B” theme covers a range of two octaves plus a half step!
For the greater bulk of time for the piece, Ravel scores two “A” themes, followed by two “B” themes. Because this is an exercise in crescendo, Ravel gives each successive presentation of a theme to an instrument (or instruments), which is (are) normally and naturally a slight bit louder than the preceding instrument (or instruments). Accordingly, more players join the harmonic texture and the rhythmic lines, aiding the crescendo effect throughout. The only break from this pattern of two “A” themes succeeded by two “B” themes occurs at the end of the work, where a single “A” theme is followed immediately with the final “B” theme with its extended coda.
My feeling is that trombonists often interpret the Boléro solo incorrectly. They make a serious stylistic mistake by using the wrong articulation. All of the preceding presentations of the themes are littered profusely with slur markings. Because all of these woodwinds (plus the trumpet and horn) have keys and valves, the effect is liquid, smooth
as cream. The misunderstanding is almost forgivable and concerns the interpretation of the word “sostenuto” in the trombone solo. Even the cheapest music dictionary I could find translates “sostenuto” as sustained. Some go so far as to state “sustaining the tone” or “holding the notes their full duration”. Just because we do not see any slur lines above our notes, we should not play the solo in a detached, wooden manner. Let’s face it; most trombonists will better match the slurred effect of the preceding themes if they use a legato tongue style. A true “tenuto” tongue is not out of the question either, but, in my opinion, a detached style is not appropriate for this first presentation of the trombone solo. Even looking at the “B” theme at rehearsal number 11 that follows the trombone solo at rehearsal number 10, one sees slur markings in all nine solo lines! Why should the trombone sound any different?
When the trombonist plays the solo the second time at rehearsal number 15, all of the other instruments playing the same line are marked with slur and legato lines. Curiously, Ravel’s indication below the trombone solo remains the same “sostenuto.” For me, this cinches the argument; I believe that legato or a very connected tenuto is the solution, blending with the predominately smooth woodwind and string lines.
For further proof, consider this. I’m reasonably certain that Maurice Ravel never encountered Bo Derek or even saw the movie, but I ask you, “How can you play the Boléro solo with sultry shapes and sensuous curves unless you think long and luscious?”
After the relatively peaceful, serene ten presentations leading up to the entrance of the trombone solo, all too frequently the trombone juts out of the orchestral texture like an assault on the senses. Instead of absorbing the style of the previous two themes, as played by the solo woodwinds and trumpet and horn in the preceding presentations, the trombone solo comes across as too loud. Sure, it’s supposed to be an orchestral crescendo, but this trombone solo occurs only about half way to the goal post. The marking is mezzo-forte, and I believe that this really means medium loud, not wailing.
I would not recommend a mezzo-piano dynamic level either. We must keep in mind that the lone trombone player follows the “A” theme played simultaneously by an oboe, an oboe d’amour, an English horn, and two clarinets. You want your porridge not too hot, and not too cold, but just right.
Whereas the first presentation of the trombone solo is marked “mezzo-forte”, the second one at rehearsal number 15 has no specific dynamic marking. However, it is safe to assume that it should be now “forte”, since the woodwinds and strings (who you join) have been at a “forte” level since rehearsal 11.
For the third and last presentation at rehearsal 17, it is okay to let steam rise from the end of your already heated bell. Ravel allows “fortissimo possible,” and, for once in your life, you aren’t likely to see the raised palm of the conductor between your eyes and his/hers. Now, this scenario might be not the norm, but I played this solo in Carnegie Hall with the National Symphony less than a month before writing this article, and I had the extraordinary pleasure of competing with six snare drums standing on a riser behind my head! My buddies tell me that 90% of the orchestra is playing the solo line with me, but I really can’t hear any of them. Since the NSO has a four-person trombone section, the assistant gets to join the orgy, too. We double the solo this time.
Talk about opening a can of wiggly worms—this subject makes me feel squirmy. There might be endless debate about the manner of executing the glissandos (really portamentos, if you remember your orchestration courses) or indeed how many there are. In the final analysis, no conductor is going to give a … thought about how you smear from high b-flat to high d-flat. Whether you touch the b-flat as a grace note before dragging the slide from 5th position to 2nd position, or simply do a “Lassus Trombone” slide, my opinion is that it doesn’t matter. Ravel notates the effect the same in the saxophone lines as he does in the trombone line. It appears to be a grace note on b-flat, followed by a portamento line from the b-flat to d-flat. (Ravel was apparently familiar with the saxophone’s ability to bend notes almost as completely as a trombone.) The fact that the saxophone is a keyed instrument probably accounts for the grace note indication. My feeling is that the grace note marking fell into the trombone part by default. Unless you are convinced that a grace note is necessary before the “gliss,” you need not be that literal. If it is too treacherous for you to re-articulate the high b-flat as a grace note before ascending to high d-flat, just cover the interval with a smear and be done with it.
Warning! Many trombonists develop a short right arm in the high register. Be it fear or carelessness, the high b-flat in 5th position often sounds too sharp. Sure, that note is supposed to be in a slightly sharp 5th position (because it is the 10th harmonic series tone), but it most definitely should not be in the area of 4th position. Check your pitch by ear in comparison with 1st position, or, better yet, turn on your tuner.
There is a mystery concerning the number of “glisses” to play in the solo. If your job is secure, and you are feeling particularly cocky, I guess you can get away with many “glisses” in your personal interpretation. Some have suggested that Ravel encouraged copious smears, á la jazz, in the trombone solo, and that I will not dispute. Nevertheless, in an audition, it’s too easy to be thrown out for less serious offenses; I would not want to be eliminated because I was too rubber-armed or eccentric in the head.
In the second measure of the solo, there is a clear indication to slide from g-natural to b-flat. This happens in the first two presentations of the trombone solo: at number 10 and at number 15. Just for the record, however, none of the other instruments that play this same “B” theme ever have this smear. To be technical about it, the trombonist does not have this portamento the third time the solo appears at number 17. If you think that someone is really listening during an audition, please observe this difference.
Now, the question of the number of “glisses” from the high b-flat to d-flat needs to be addressed. There is more ambiguity here, because the saxophones always smear twice. When the trombone solo comes in the second time, the conductor sees two “glisses” in the score, while the hapless trombonist sees just one in the trombone part. The conductor had a feeling that you were a lazy bum long before you hit number 15 in Boléro, but now suspicions have turned to reality. In this case, two “glisses” are better than one, and you will match the soprano saxophone at this spot.
The conductor’s score and the trombone part agree for the first time the trombone solo enters at number 10. Only one “gliss” is indicated, but the conductor has recently heard both of the saxophones render two juicy “glisses” approaching the last two high d-flats at rehearsal numbers 6 and 7. Play it safe, and perform one “gliss” as in the score;
or get bold and play two “glisses.” If questioned on this item of trivia, point out that, in the third presentation of the trombone solo at number 17, two “glisses” are notated both in the conductor’s score and in the trombone part.
My conclusion is that, just as the saxophones always slide to high d-flat twice, the trombonist could follow suit in all three presentations of the solo. Maybe the printer’s eyes blinked shut when setting the type for the solo at number 10. Since the score clearly calls for two sets of “glisses” in two of the trombone solos, I think that he intended there to be two sets of “glisses” in all three of the solos.
Without a doubt, the Boléro solo should be heavily laced with vibrato. Ravel does not indicate the word “vibrez” in the score, but this is the kind of melody that begs to shimmer. Furthermore, it would be folly to ask the solo bassoon or oboe d’amour or the saxophones to play their solos “straight” without vibrato. The trombonist adds life to the line, if he/she uses a fine slide vibrato or a flexible lip/jaw vibrato. If you are the type of player who likes to tune your trombone high, so that you can use slide vibrato in first position, this solo lends itself well to this procedure.
Do you think Ravel might have detested slide vibrato? Well, Ravel wrote a trombone solo in another one of his compositions—“L’Enfante et les Sortilèges” (1925), three years before Boléro. This solo, too, is in the upper register of the trombone; in fact, it goes up to high d-natural a number of times. Above the notes appear this direction: “Vibrer avec la coulisse” (Vibrato with the slide).
To be honest, I do not re-tune my trombone sharp, and I do not use slide vibrato in first position. (I guess I’m chicken, and I feel that I’ve got enough to worry about.) I do, however, wiggle my wrist on the long notes not in first position. The high d-flats are particularly beautiful with a shimmering slide vibrato. When I play a note in first position, I use a lip/jaw vibrato, matched similar in speed and amplitude to the slide vibrato. Once the solo drops into the low tessitura, I use lip/jaw vibrato exclusively on the held notes.
My advice to trombonists is that you practice and learn to produce a vibrato in at least these two ways: slide or lip/jaw. Early in my career, I was happily playing the Boléro with a French conductor, until he stopped and asked me to use vibrato. I knew that I was already using a lip/jaw vibrato; so, I simply made it more pronounced. Much to my surprise, he stopped me again, expressing the same desire. Fortunately, the next time through, first being sure that my slide was superbly lubricated, I delivered the same type of vibrato I had practiced in the Bassman and Washington solo that Tommy Dorsey made famous: “Getting Sentimental Over You.”
The trombone part does not indicate a tempo, but there is the marking quarter note = 72 in the conductor’s score. It is well documented that Ravel was disgusted with performances that were too quick. Being a perfectionist, he was insistent about many musical matters with those who interpreted his music. Too fast is not good!
I have performed this solo perhaps only once in my career, where the conductor religiously held to the 72 metronome marking. I’ll admit that the solo flies by at that speed, and breathing is easier. (I prefer that the first two phrases each be taken in one breath.) My impression is that the solo works better at a slightly slower pace, and this seems to be corroborated by most recordings and live conducted performances. Given a preference, I would set the metronome at 66-69. Now, there is opportunity for expression and slight rubato.
The uncomfortable tempos are the ones below 66. Do some conductors go that slowly? You bet they do! The very first time I ever had to play the Boléro solo with a professional orchestra, the conductor took the piece down to an escargot’s pace of 58 beats per minute. I had never practiced the solo with so many breaths! So, a practice method I have used ever since is to start at a breeze-easy 72 beats per minute, dropping the metronome click by click until I am practicing it around 58-60 beats per minute. Now, that develops stamina!
Have you ever tried playing the Boléro solo higher than written? It’s an effective practice tool, but hard on the gray matter between your ears. If you take it up a half step, the key signature becomes seven sharps. Ouch! Likewise, do you remember the first time your teacher gave you the solo to practice, and you couldn’t hit the high d-flats? Did you ever try to transpose it to a lower key? If you mentally substitute a bass clef sign for the tenor clef, the first note is only an e-flat, and the highest note is just a g-flat. (Add a flat to the key signature, and it works.)
To help all of you who would like to gradually work up this important, highly visible solo, I have prepared a “Progressive Strengthening Study for Ravel’s Boléro.” Every transposition is written out, starting a perfect fifth lower than written, and progressing up by half steps, until you end up playing the solo an entire perfect fourth higher than written. You can hand copy these yourself, or use a music software program on your computer—or, you can send me five bucks, and I will mail you the eight pages of material, beautifully done on “Finale.”