Behind Ravel’s Boléro: the repercussions of Wellington’s Victory

Smith, R. L. (2015) Behind Ravel’s Boléro: the repercussions of Wellington’s Victory. In: City of Light: Paris 1900-1950: International Conference, 27-29 May 2015, French Cultural Institute, London. (Unpublished)


Ravel’s Spanish pieces are often traced back to Bizet’s Carmen, perhaps by way of his own earlier Spanish pieces, Debussy’s, and Chabrier’s España and a few others by French composers. But in fact Spanish fever in France goes back much further, and the genre of the Boléro has been curiously ignored by writers on Ravel. We may be celebrating the bicentenary of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo this year, but more important—crucial in fact—for French music was his former victory at Vitoria in Northern Spain, celebrated by Beethoven in his ‘Battle Symphony’. Wellington’s defeat of the Napoleonic regime in this battle—ending the peninsula wars— resulted in a diaspora of disgraced Spanish intellectuals, artists and musicians moving north, many of them to Paris—these ‘traitors’ were known as afrancesados. Some fled to Paris for professional reasons, some for their lives, and some because many Spanish intellectuals and artists had liberal leanings. During the 1830s they catalysed a fever for Spanish music in France, leading, eventually, to Bizet’s celebrated opera and to its numerous repercussions. The Bolero was importantly fostered by Fernando Sor, in one or two of his compositions, but also in a very full dictionary article, although most of his music was in a more classical style. In the twentieth century, an acquaintance of Ravel – Raoul Laparra – for the first time published a comprehensive study of Spanish folk music. This presentation will unveil some details of this musical progression; Sor’s role in establishing the SeguidillaBolero, Laparra’s role in cataloguing the diverse musical genres of his native country, and some amusing French interpretations of Spanish music, including a notated part for a fan. Without this background, would Ravel have ever composed his most durable piece?

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