The work had its genesis in a commission from the dancer Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to create a ballet score with a Spanish character. The original plan had been for him to orchestrate excerpts from Isaac Albéniz' set of piano pieces, Iberia, but he was unable to obtain the rights to do so, as Albéniz had given the rights of orchestration to his pupil Ferdinand Enrique Arbos. Ravel instead wrote a brand new piece.
Bolero is written for a large orchestra consisting of two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, oboe d'amore, cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four French horns, piccolo trumpet in D, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three saxophones (one sopranino, one soprano and one tenor), three timpani, two snare drums, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, harp and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses). An average performance will last in the region of fifteen minutes.
The piece has a very simple structure - it consists almost entirely of a single melody, repeated over and over again, orchestrated differently each time, but otherwise unchanging. It begins quietly, with the melody played in C major by a flute over an ostinato rhythm tapped out by a snare drum which continues throughout the piece (for the last few minutes of the work, it is played by two drums in unison):
The melody is passed between different instruments, clarinet, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, oboe d'amore, trumpet, saxophone, horn and so on. The accompaniment becomes gradually thicker and louder until the whole orchestra is playing at the very end. Just before the end (rehearsal number 18 in the score), there is a sudden change of key to E major, though C major is reestablished after just eight bars. Six bars from the end, the bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam make their first entry, and the trombones play raucous glissandi while the whole orchestra beats out the rhythm that has been played on the snare drum from the very first bar. The work ends on a C major chord.
The work was a great success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928. It has remained popular ever since, though is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged. Ravel purported to be somewhat embarrassed that a piece which was, in his words, "without music", should become so well known.
The piece was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself made a version for two pianos, published in 1930.
Bolero was one of the last pieces that Ravel composed before illness forced him into retirement. The only works he wrote after this were the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, the Piano Concerto in G major and the song "Don Quichotte a Dulcinée".
The Bolero was famously used in the movie 10, and also accompanied ice skaters Torvill and Dean in their gold medal-winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics.