The stories behind the world’s greatest classical compositions…Composition 12/50.
***Editor’s Note: most classical works are fine to stand on their own when it comes to the telling of the story of how that piece of music came to be. But, today’s work is one whose story cannot be told without also discussing the cultural impact that it had as the centrepiece of a famous Hollywood movie. So, for the first time since I started creating the posts for the Keepin’ It Classy and the Stars for Stage and Screen series, we are having a crossover edition. This post will appear on the checklists for each series, as well as on the Spotify playlists for each series, too.
In the 1970s, one of the most well-respected movie directors in Hollywood was a man named Blake Edwards. Edwards won many awards for his filmmaking: most notably for the classic series of comedic films starring Peter Sellers that were known as the Pink Panther movies. Blake Edwards grew up in a household steeped in the traditions of Vaudeville and of filmmaking in the black and white silent era. Thus, many of his formative influences were people who frequented his very own home such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. When Blake Edwards began producing his own films, slapstick comedy was often a feature. Because of his success in Hollywood, Edwards was able to attract A-list actors to work on his projects. So, when it was announced in 1978 that Edwards was making a new movie starring Julie Andrews and Dudley Moore, the excitement level within the film industry was real. Everyone expected the movie to do well. In 1979 the movie was released in theatres and quickly became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. That movie was called “10”. The cultural phenomenon came in the form of an unknown actress and model named Bo Derek. This is the story of why Bo Derek was always more than just a pretty face.
The plot of “10” is fairly straightforward on the surface. It involves Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews being a couple who have reached middle age together. Dudley Moore is starting to tire of the love life he and Andrews share, and as a result his eyes begin to roam. For the most part, this involves using a telescope to spy on his neighbours as they enjoy their own intimate acts. However, one day while driving his car, Moore finds himself at a red light. As he glances over into the car beside him at the light, he sees that in the back seat sits a bride on her way to her wedding. The first time Moore sees the bride’s face is the first time we, as an audience, meet Bo Derek. Blake Edwards deliberately cast a complete unknown in the role because he wanted the reaction of the audience when seeing her face in that car to be pure and unsullied by any previous baggage she may have carried over from other roles in other movies. So, we see what Moore sees as he sees it. What Dudley saw was a flawlessly beautiful female face. Bo Derek was truly beautiful. In the movie, seeing her took Moore’s breath away. She became a fantasy that he just had to have become real. In pursuit of finding her, much physical comedy ensues. When Moore finally winds up next to her on a couch in her home, he is very quick to realize that the predator has become the prey and she has all of the power in this situation. He suddenly feels weak and inadequate. This is brought home when it is revealed by Derek’s character that she and her new husband have “an understanding” and that she is free to indulge her own fantasies whenever the opportunity arises. Then Derek asks him if he has ever “done it” to Ravel’s Bolero? Moore responds with an terrified gulp.
After “10” was released, there was some debate as to whether or not the movie made a feminist statement by having Bo Derek so confidently take charge and pursue her own sources of personal pleasure, or, as has so often been the case in Hollywood, was Edwards simply objectifying Derek and making a hit movie based solely upon her looks? Blake Edwards countered that he was always intent on making a movie that honoured strong women. He backed up his claim by telling reporters that his vision for making “10” came to him after learning of the story behind how Maurice Ravel came to make “Bolero”. This is that story.
Maurice Ravel was a French composer. He was most noted for being a composer of music for ballet. Ravel was always keenly interested in the relationship between sound and movement, and therefore he created his compositions with the end goal of his music accompanying some form of dance. Because of his reputation for creating ballet scores, Ravel was approached by a woman named Ida Rubenstein in the hopes that he would create an original work for her to dance to on stage. Ravel was excited for the commission because Rubenstein was a well known figure in the international world of dance in the early 1900s. Rubenstein was a Jewish woman who was born in Russia at the turn of the century. Her family was fairly wealthy, which afforded Rubenstein the opportunity to indulge her artistic fantasies. So, she decided to become a ballerina. The unfortunate thing was that Rubenstein was never professionally trained. So, when she appeared on stage in Russia and attempted to dance in productions her lack of training exposed her as an amateur, and she became the subject of mockery in the dance world. However, Rubenstein was never one to shrink away from challenges. If she couldn’t dance in ballet productions with the premier ballet companies, then she would create her own ballets and write roles suited for her talents. Thus, Rubenstein became a player in the world of staging original ballets. But, more than that, Ida Rubenstein balked at being told that female roles had to conform to social expectations and that, as a result, she should only dance in demure roles. Because she controlled her own means of production, Rubenstein created roles for herself that often involved nudity and/or sexually-suggestive scenes. Her willingness to pose nude in public caused a scandal during the early 1900s. So, when she approached Ravel to commission some music for her latest ballet, Ravel was very aware of who Rubenstein was and the type of movement-inducing music that would please his new client.
“Bolero” is a term that is used to describe a form of couples dance that originated in Spain and Portugal. In many ways, it is a distant relative of flamenco dancing. The main difference is that bolero-style dancing is done at a much slower and more sensuous rate. Ravel’s “Bolero” composition is unique among works judged as being among the best of its genre because it is limited to only one movement. As we have seen in other posts in the Keepin’ It Classy series, most classical compositions are composed of between three to five movements. In classical music, a musical movement serves a purpose in the storytelling arc created by the composer depending on where it is placed in the overall structure of the composition. It is very rare for any classical work to have only one movement, especially one movement that comprises a fifteen-minute work. But, that is what Ravel created and presented to Rubenstein, who, in turn, loved it! The reason that Ravel’s “Bolero” was a perfect match for Rubenstein’s erotic style of performing is that the composition is built in a way that simulates love making…to put it bluntly. There are many who compare “Bolero” to the rock n’ roll classic “Stairway To Heaven”. In both cases, the songs are said to be structured so as to simulate sexual intercourse. They both start slowly and repeat themselves over and over, slowly building in intensity until climaxing in a crescendo of sound near the end, at which time, a slow, relaxed coda closes out each song. For Rubenstein, she knew exactly what Ravel had created and was happy to apply her brand of sensuality on stage. The end result of all of this is that Ravel’s “Bolero” gained a reputation as being the “sexiest” classical composition of all time.
Which brings us back to producer Blake Edwards. He was well aware of the background story behind “Bolero” and worked to create a fictional storyline around it. He always knew that he wanted someone in his movie who would be able to possess the irresistible beauty and sexual confidence of an Ida Rubenstein. That woman turned out to be Bo Derek. Until the end of his life, Blake Edwards always maintained that Bo Derek’s character was the strongest female role he ever created in any film he produced. As for composer Maurice Ravel, he completed “Bolero” in the 1920s and as part of his sales agreement with Ida Rubenstein was able to retain a composer’s credit on his work. Copyright laws had become standard policy by those days for composers. Consequently, when Blake Edwards licensed “Bolero” for his movie, “10”, he did so with a piece of music not yet in the public domain. As is true of almost all movies which are built upon a musical foundation, the soundtrack to the movie “10” sold millions of copies which, in turn earned millions of dollars for Maurice Ravel’s estate…a windfall his heirs continue to enjoy to this very day.
The link to the video of a live performance of “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel can be found here.
The link to the official movie trailer for the film “10” can be found here.
The link to the official website for my hometown classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, can be found here.
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