Ravel and Morocco

As Ravel's last illness grew more severe, his friends sought ways to divert him and to stimulate his mind, and in 1935 Ida Rubinstein arranged with the sculptor Léon Leyritz that he should accompany Ravel on a journey to Morocco via Spain. Setting out in mid-February 1935, Leyritz and Ravel made their way to Algeciras where they took the ferry to Tangier, arriving on market day which immediately immersed them in an exotic spectacle of multicoloured crowds, stalls of unfamiliar fruit, snake-charmers and camels. In the last days of February they went on to Marrakech where they remained for three weeks staying at the hotel La Mamounia. On one occasion they were invited to the desert-palace of Telouët in the Atlas mountains, a four-hour journey by road from Marrakech. The son of the caïd El Glaoui arranged an elaborate banquet and entertainment for them, in which a hundred white-robed dancers performed in the courtyard around a crouching group of musicians, while Arab guests walked their black greyhounds round about.

The sights, sounds and smells of the surroundings seem to have had a tonic effect on Ravel, even stimulating him to start writing a letter to his brother, something which had previously seemed beyond him. His thoughts also returned to a projected opera Morgiane, based on a story from the Arabian Nights; he hummed some melodies to Leyritz and talked about his ideas for its staging. (Orenstein [1989] letter 339).

On 10 March they moved on to Kasba-Tedla and then to Fez, which provided a spectacle of whiteness studded with greenery in place the reds of Marrakech. Ravel was delighted by its cats and turtle-doves. When the local Directeur des Beaux-Arts showed them some magnificent gardens and suggested that they could be an inspiration for Ravel to write some music in an Arabian style, Ravel replied, with more spirit than tact, "If I did, it would be much more Arabian than that".

Returning to Tangier for the crossing, they made their way back across Spain. Ravel's close friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange assembled numerous reminiscences of this trip in her memoir Ravel et nous (Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.221-231), and conveys a clear picture of this as one of the brightest spots in Ravel's troubled last years. His biographer Marcel Marnat however judged that Ravel's ability to engage with and enjoy the experience was severely compromised by his illness (Marnat [1986] p.677).