I've been absorbed in Roger Nichols' fine, if somewhat exhaustively attentive, new biography of a composer nearly universally regarded as one of the greatest of all French artists: Maurice Ravel, who not incidentally was actually born to a poor Basque mother and a Swiss engineer father.
There are plenty of engaging bits, but one of the funniest and most telling anecdotes I've come across in Nichols' book is his citation of an interview Ravel gave to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in 1931. Speaking about Boléro -- the piece that above all others catapulted him to worldwide fame — the composer takes stinging aim at a couple of heavy-hitting conductors:
I have to say that Boléro is rarely conducted as I think it should be. [Willem] Mengelberg speeds up and slows down excessively. Toscanini takes it twice as fast as it should be and slows the tempo down at the end, which is not marked anywhere. No: Boléro should be played at a constant speed from beginning to end, in the plaintive, monotonous style of Arabo-Spanish melodies. When I told Toscanini that he was taking too many liberties, he replied: "If I don't play it my way, it will fall flat." Virtuosos are incorrigible, lost in their dream worlds as though composers didn't exist.
Given that harrumphing, who knows what Monsieur Ravel would have made of the long, long line of complete desecrations of his most massively popular piece, in terms of both performance and intended meaning.
Boléro has taken hold in pop culture in a way that few other classical pieces ever have. In the way-back machine, there was the movie 10, but slightly more recently, I recall a college flatmate of mine who kept only two classical recordings in his collection. "Beethoven's Fifth to look classy," as he told me, "and Boléro for getting down to business when the ladies come to visit. I've never listened to the Beethoven. It's supposed to be pretty good, right?" (The Ravel got a fair amount of spin time, however.)
Here's a wonderful montage of versions from the sublimely silly to the standard score conducted by Ravel himself that have been assembled by my "Deceptive Cadence" co-conspirator Tom Huizenga; you can hear it at the link above.
More recent contenders/offenders, depending on your point of view, include the version for vuvuzelas made by players from the Konzerthaus-orchester Berlin at the height of World Cup fever last summer. (If you can't handle a couple of minutes of German-language vuvuzela instruction and a truly unfortunate bit of Brahms, start at about 1:58.)
There's also this rather bonkers version from Japan, arranged for an orchestra of mostly marimbas:
And one more for your listening pleasure: a rather sweetly sun-dappled choir of ukulele-playing boleristas (who in reality are all one guy, very cleverly edited):
We're wondering: What's your favorite take on Boléro? Let us know in the comments section below. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.