Ravel’s Bolero back from the dead?

Although no lyrics are involved, I can’t resist talking about this classic case of copyright shenanigans 😉

Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” is one of classical music’s most amazing success stories. The 15-minute one-act piece was commissioned by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein and first performed in 1928. The repeated theme and slow build has been called “an exercise in hypnotism”. Since that time, it has generated millions of euros first for Ravel and later for a series of people with practically no connection with him.

Ravel himself had no direct descendants. So the rights passed to his brother, Edouard. When his wife died, Edouard married his live-in nurse, Jeanne Taverne.  When he in turn died, Taverne re-married Edouard’s former driver, Alexandre, and they both inherited the fortune.

Distant cousins tried to stop what looked like a scam. For ten years the money was blocked but eventually stayed with Alexandre (his wife had died in the meantime). His lawyer was Jean-Jacques Lemoine, a former legal affairs director for France’s authors right society, Sacem. He subsequently set up a network of offshore and shell companies to avoid taxes. Alexandre Tavernier subsequently married again. After he and his wife died, the goldmine fell to her daughter from a previous marriage, Evelyne Pen de Castel.

Everything was running smoothly – until 1996, that is. That’s when it entered the public domain.

The copyright bolero

Since that time, the last remaining rights owner, Evelyne Pen de Castel, has been fighting to change its status. Practically since the writer’s death, the rights have been going to a succession of people with only a very tangential connection to Ravel himself, of which de Castel is the latest (and possibly last). What’s more, they are managed by several shell companies in a number of fiscal paradises according to a report in the Belgian classical music magazine Crescendo.

Yet since 2016, de Castel has been arguing that the work was not written by Ravel alone, but was co-composed with the designer Alexandre Benois. Why would she do this? As Benois only died in 1960, the copyright laws means that Bolero could continue to generate rights until 2039. The extra financial windfall could amount to some EUR20 million (note: estimates are by definition very approximate).

This application is not new and has already been rejected twice, in 2016 and 2017. According to people close to the file, the parties are bringing few new arguments. First hearing: January 2019. Will this one overturn the preceding decisions? Personally, I doubt it. But we will have to wait and see what the French courts decide. They tend to favour authors. But this case is pushing the limits of authorship and copyright quite far, in my humble opinion.

UPDATE: as of November 2019, the Sacem continues to list the Boléro as being in the public domain.

In the meantime, enjoy one of classical music’s most singular and popular 15 minutes, except these guys cut it down to just over 3 minutes 😉

The life of Ravel in French

Maurice Ravel is one of the key classical composers of the 20th century. His discreet personality covered a complex character that lived through complex times. For a dramatised overview of his life and the Boléro (in French) check the RTBF’s “Boléro de Ravel” in 10 episodes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *