After returning to France, Ravel composed his most famous and controversial orchestral work Boléro, originally called Fandango. Ravel called it “an experiment in a very special and limited direction”. He stated his idea for the piece, “I am going to try to repeat it a number of times on different orchestral levels but without any development.” He conceived of it as an accompaniment to a ballet and not as an orchestral piece as, in his own opinion, “it has no music in it”, and was somewhat taken aback by its popular success. A public dispute began with conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro, taking liberties with Ravel’s strict instructions, conducted the piece at a faster tempo and with an “accelerando at the finish”. Ravel insisted “I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played.” In the end, the feuding only helped to increase the work’s fame. A Hollywood film titled Bolero (1934), starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, made major use of the theme. Ravel made one of the few recordings of his own music when he conducted his Boléro with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1930.
Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos simultaneously. He completed the Concerto for the Left Hand first. The work was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I. Ravel was inspired by the technical challenges of the project. As Ravel stated, “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.” Ravel, not proficient enough to perform the work with only his left hand, demonstrated it with two-hands and Wittgenstein was reportedly underwhelmed by it. But later Wittgenstein stated, “Only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realized what a great work it was.” In 1933, Wittgenstein played the work in concert for the first time to instant acclaim. Critic Henry Prunières wrote, “From the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us.”
The other piano concerto was completed a year later. Its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and also makes use of jazz-like themes. Ravel dedicated the work to his favorite pianist, Marguerite Long, who played it and popularized it across Europe in over twenty cities, and they recorded it together in 1932. EMI later reissued the 1932 recording on LP and CD. Although Ravel was listed as the conductor on the original 78-rpm discs, it is possible he merely supervised the recording.
Ravel, ever modest, was bemused by the critics' sudden favor of him since his American tour: “Didn’t I represent to the critics for a long time the most perfect example of insensitivity and lack of emotion?... And the successes they have given me in the past few years are just as unimportant.”
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