There are perhaps two reasons why Ravel's health should be a topic of continuing interest. Firstly, at various times in his life it had a direct impact on his musical output, sometimes making the process of composition a very slow and arduous one. Secondly, the deteriorating condition from which he suffered during the last five years of his life, and which deprived him of the ability to write down his music but which apparently left his mental and creative faculties unimpaired, has been the subject of much medical debate, which continues to this day. [See the medical bibliography.]

         Before the war
         Wartime, and after
         Last years

Before the War

While his physical health was generally good, on two occasions in this period Ravel's mental or emotional state seems to have prevented him from composing in his usual manner. In October 1908, his father Joseph Ravel died, and a close relationship was broken. In the earlier part of the year, he had completed the orchestration of the Rapsodie espagnole, and written Gaspard de la nuit, one of his most intense and substantial works, as well as starting on Ma mère l'Oye.

In the seven months following the death of his father, he completed only one small work, the folk-song setting Tripatos, and it was only in June 1909 that a commission from Diaghilev launched him on his next major composition Daphnis et Chloé.

Although he was of slight build and short stature (about 5ft. 4in. / 1.62m.), Ravel by his own admission enjoyed good health for the first two-thirds of his life ("c'est entendu, je n'ai jamais été malade depuis ma naissance" [letter to Mme Fernand Dreyfus on 5.v.1916, in Ravel (1986) p.47]. He was an active walker and swimmer.

It was only when he was seeking to serve in the armed forces during World War I that a number of physical ailments began to trouble him. He was initially rejected for military service for being under-weight ("j'ai eu la déception d'être jugé trop léger de 2 kilos" [letter to Roland-Manuel on 26.ix.1914, in Orenstein (1989) p.143]) and for a having a hernia (medical records in the Archives de Paris, DR 1 553-1895, reported in Orenstein [1991] p.71).

Daphnis proved to be a long and gruelling project, and its eventual completion in 1912 left Ravel in a state of nervous exhaustion. His doctor instructed him to rest, and he went initially to La Grangette, the house of his friends the Godebskis, at Valvins near Fontainebleau. It was another seven months before he was actively composing again, with the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé.

"Les diverses œuvres que j'ai fais représenter la saison dernière, et, surtout, Daphnis et Chloé, m'ont laissé en piteux état. Il m'a fallu m'expédier à la campagne, pour soigner un commencement de neurasthénie." (Letter to Ralph Vaughan Williams on 5.viii.1912, in Orenstein [1989] p.124).


Wartime, and after

In March 1915, Ravel was allowed to enlist as an army driver, and in March 1916 he was assigned to duties near the front at Verdun. His letters from this period speak frequently of insomnia and exhaustion, and sometimes of his frustration at not being able to compose in what he believed would have been a particularly fruitful period. His most serious problem arose in September when he contracted dysentery, which led to an operation and an extended convalescence.

"Oui, cependant, il y a autre chose: la musique. Je croyais l'avoir oubliée. Depuis quelques jours, elle revient, tyrannique. Je ne pense plus qu'à ça. Je suis sûr que j'aurais été en pleine période de production. L'artiste se chamaille avec l'homme de guerre..." (Letter to Mme Fernand Dreyfus, on, in Ravel [1986] p.58).

Before he had returned to service, his mother died in January 1917, plunging him into a prolonged state of grief and depression. In addition to the now familiar symptoms of lassitude and insomnia, he also had bouts of fever (Ravel [1986] p.113), and a chest complaint, which may have been tuberculosis ("ce sacré poumon droit", in letter to Alfred Casella on 5.xi.1918, in Orenstein [1989] p.167), and for which he was sent to the Alpine resort of Mégève for three months.

The only works that he completed between 1916 and 1921 were Le tombeau de Couperin (begun before the war), La valse, and the tiny Frontispice. For the remainder of his active life, his rate of composition was slower than before: in the following twelve years there was an average of just one work per year.


Last years

Few composers can have suffered a more poignant and perplexing condition than Ravel during the last five years of his life. While remaining for the most part physically and mentally active, and still able to hear and compose music in his head, he progressively lost the ability to express himself or to write down his music.

Some friends identified the first signs of something amiss many years before the problem became acute. In 1927, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange was alarmed by his strange behaviour and arranged for him to see a doctor (Vallery-Radot) who prescribed a year's rest. Ravel embarked on a 3-month tour of America instead, which seemed to reinvigorate him.

Not for the first time, the act of composing was identified as an agent in his ill-health.

His symptoms became undeniably apparent after he was injured in an accident while travelling in a taxi (on 8.ix.1932). Although he seemed to recover from the injuries, it has been argued that the accident exacerbated an already existing brain disease - or that it in fact caused more serious neurological damage than was realised (See Otte [20032]). Apart from loss of concentration, which had often interfered with his composition before, he developed increasing difficulty with his oral and written abilities. Surviving examples of his writing from the following years show that they were produced with effort and were uncharacteristically full of mistakes.

In June 1933 Ravel was staying in St-Jean-de-Luz. He enjoyed bathing and was a strong swimmer, but on one occasion he found himself in difficulties and unable to coordinate his movements. He had to be rescued from the water. He again consulted Dr Vallery-Radot, and was prescribed a number of drugs and absolute rest. (Letter to Marie Gaudin, in Orenstein [1989] p.279-280).

In 1932 Ravel had accepted a commission to write the music for a film, to be directed by G.W Pabst about Don Quixote, (but he was unaware that other composers were being approached at the same time). His progress was so slow that Jacques Ibert was preferred instead, and it was only in 1933 that Ravel finished the three songs of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, which became his last completed work.

He still had other projects however - which he realised he would never write.

[1927] "Après toutes les formalités d'usage et quelques jours d'examen, le Dr Vallery-Radot recommanda le repos à Ravel pendant un an. Il avait tout de suite discerné que cette fatigue prétendue passagère était beaucoup plus grave que nous ne le pensions. Heureusement Ravel devait partir pour l'Amérique, voyager, ne pas composer pendant trois mois, au moins."   (Hélène Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.242-243).

[1932] "Il a suffit de ce stupide accident pour m'anéantir pendant 3 mois. Ce n'est que depuis quelques jours que j'ai pu me remettre à travail et assez difficilement." (Letter to Alfred Perrin, 7.ii.1933, in Orenstein [1989] p.278).

"Un pansement autour de la tête, quelques dents cassées et beaucoup plus de 'choc' qu'on ne l'avait imaginé tout d'abord. Cet accident contribua-t-il à aggracer les malheureum symptômes? ...le mal empira de mois en mois à dater de ce jour. Ravel alors essaya tout... électricité, rééducation, piqûres, suggestions, chaque ami proposait le sûr moyen de guérison, et Ravel, en désespéré, se lançait dans les cures les plus invraisemblables."   (Hélène Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.243).

[1933] "De plus en plus vaseux, j'allai voir Vallery-Radot: prise de tension, assez faible. Prise de sang: urée assez abondante pour inquiéter le médecin. Ça s'est arrangé. Mais l'anémie continue. Médication: un tas de drogues à se perdre, repos absolu..." (Ravel in a letter to Marie Gaudin on 2.viii.1933, in Orenstein [1989] p.279-280).

[1933] "Valentine, je ne ferai jamais ma Jeanne d'Arc, cet opéra est là dans ma tête, je l'entends mais je ne l'écrirai plus jamais, c'est fini, je peux plus écrire ma musique." (Ravel to Valentine Hugo in November 1933, recorded in Revue musicale janvier 1952).

Ravel's condition continued to deteriorate in the following years, and in 1937, although the opinion of doctors - and of his friends - was divided, it was decided that it was better to try to do something to rescue him rather than to let him continue as he was. In December 1937 Edouard Ravel gave his permission for an operation, and Ravel was admitted to the rue Boileau clinic, believing that he was just going in for a test. Exploratory brain surgery (apparently without an adequate anaesthetic) was carried out on 19 December, by Professeur Clovis Vincent, to see if a tumour was the cause of the problem. Only a collapsed left hemisphere of the brain was discovered, and was treated with an injection of serum. After briefly regaining consciousness, Ravel sank into a coma and died nine days later, on 28 December.


A list of published work on Ravel's history can be found in the medical bibliography.