This is an extraordinary piece that elegantly displays the power of the repeated phrase in lengthy compositions. All of the parts heard are essentially repeated and because of this the listener is able to settle down and concentrate on the unfolding parts as the piece unfolds and builds.
Written in C Major, the primary phrases are based on the tonic and flattened seventh with an ostinato on the fifth being played by various instruments in turn. As the phrases progress the feel of the music moves between the familiarity of the Occidental and the fascination of the Oriental by moving the focus of the scale and in doing so satisfactorily reminds us of Ravel’s muse for the piece, Ida Rubenstein, a Russian ballerina.
Ravel’s grouping of instruments playing the phrases is delightful. He gives the brass free rein to be as strident as it could wish as we travel through the music, backed nicely by the staccato percussion, which provides a tone which is both rough and smooth depending on which section of the orchestra one is concentrating on at that moment due to both brass and woodwind playing the same phrase.
As we reach a triumphant climax, Ravel drops the tonic by a semitone for eight bars before returning to C Major as the cymbals crash around us, then finishes with a discordant blast and a fast run back to the tonic.