Bolero looks like a simple piece, but it is more than its surface simplicity.
An ostinato (repeating motif) rhythm in the percussion opens at the beginning and maintains its steady pulse throughout the piece. Different instruments play the theme in turn, as follows:
- Solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
- Solo clarinet (in the low range)
- Solo bassoon (high range)
- Solo E-flat clarinet (higher in pitch than B-flat clarinet)
- Solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
- Muted trumpet and flute (flute floating like overtones parallel to trumpet line)
- Solo tenor saxophone (an unusual inclusion in orchestras because Ravel liked jazz)
- Solo soprano saxophone
- French horn and celesta
- Quartet composed of clarinet and three double-reeds (organ-like in timbre)
- Solo trombone (replete with sensuously sliding passages)
- High woodwinds
In the 13th variation, the strings emerge from their background role and lead the remaining variations. In the climax, the main C major is modulated to E major for a brief time, before reestablishing itself quickly, bringing the piece to an exultant, albeit abrupt, conclusion.