Maurice Ravel's Boléro is one of the most famously erotic pieces of classical music. To some 21st century ears, though, it's become the musical equivalent of shag carpeting.
The quarter-hour composition wasn't originally conceived as a soundtrack to sex. At its 1928 premiere, Ravel advocated for choreography that would have been set against an industrial background befitting the music's mechanically repetitive quality.
He had a point: the principal distinguishing feature of the piece is its relentless repetition of an insistent theme that becomes vaguely militaristic with the introduction of horns. Hardly an incitement to ardor, but there's also that slowly swelling orchestration that gives the piece the feeling of a single-minded building to climax. Since the average American couple only take seven minutes to consummate a coupling, 15 minutes is a reasonable goal to aspire to.
"There's nothing subtle about the strutting, deliciously arrogant horniness of the tune nor about its inexorable saunter to salacious satisfaction," writes Richard Todd. "Even the change of key corresponds exactly to passing that point of no return of which we're all so fond. And the big bang at the end, well, I leave it to you to interpret that one..."
The piece began appearing in sensual contexts in the 1970s, when it soundtracked a documentary about gay erotica. Its fate as a lights-down-low selection was sealed with its prominent inclusion in one of the decade's iconic cinematic sex scenes. "Did you ever do it to Ravel's Boléro?" asks Bo Derek, after which she and Dudley Moore proceed to toke up and give it a whirl — pre-empting Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
The film — Blake Edwards's 10 (1979) — was so successful that it made Boléro one of the most expensive musical numbers to license for use in future movies, earning a million dollars a year for the composer's estate.
People magazine covered the Boléro phenomenon in 1980, as recordings of the piece flew off the shelves. "'It doesn't matter which orchestra is playing,' says one record store manager in Denver. 'They just want it.' Of course, as a sex aid, the Boléro is a plain-brown-wrapper item. "No one ever wants it for himself," explains a salesman in Houston. 'It's always "for a friend."'"
Five years later, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean cemented the tune's status as a choice for couples — but also, perhaps, started the process of turning it into a colossal joke — when they chose Boléro as the soundtrack for their gold-winning performance at the Winter Olympics.
That same year, Derek appeared in a film named — wait for it — Bolero. The movie, about a woman who falls in love with a bullfighter, won that year's Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture. Today, it may be best-remembered for an infamously explicit sex scene (rumored to depict actual intercourse) between Derek and her costar, directed by Derek's then-husband John. It's probably just as well for Ravel that the titular composition wasn't even heard in the movie.
Does Boléro still inspire ardor today, or does it inspire...well, whatever you feel when you look at Dudley Moore in a wide-lapeled white suit?
Plenty of people, it seems, still like to get their freak on with Ravel: in a 2012 poll of Spotify users, Boléro was outsexed by only Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
A young celesta player, writing in 2011, called Boléro "remarkably sexual." Even though it has only 30 seconds of celesta, she wrote, "This piece is BALLIN."