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Sergei and Me, a Relationship in Four Works: 2. The Isle of the Dead
Dispatches from the Forgotten Stars #16
It begins with a slow, repeating, droning rhythm in the orchestra’s low registers: Up, down. Up down. Up down. Up down. A descending perfect fourth…but there’s something slightly odd about the rhythm. It’s offset, like a person’s gait when they have to slightly favor one leg.
It’s in 5/8 time, actually. Five beats to a measure is not something that is typical. Three, sure…but five? That’s different.
Then the arpeggios begin, over the top of that droning rhythm, softly, darkly rising from that very droning. The arpeggios feel like…waves lapping against a shore. But these are not cheerful waves, the waves of a bright beach with white sand and brilliant sun. This is a place of rocks, some sharp…and the waters here are cold and dark.
These rhythms continue, pushing and pushing forward, as we move closer and closer to the shore of the foreboding island that rises ahead of us from a sea we hope to never cross…and yet it is the very sea that we all must cross.
We are approaching the Isle of the Dead.
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Of the four works I am singling out in this series, Isle of the Dead is the one that I have discovered most recently. I’ve heard it a few times over the years, here and there, but it’s only really started to seep into my consciousness in the last, oh, five or six years. I’ve posted it regularly on my site for my Tone Poem Tuesday series during the month of October, when I focus on works with a specific spooky or supernaturally-themed mood. Isle of the Dead isn’t exactly a scary piece, but it is a deeply moody one. I use the word “brooding” a lot in describing Rachmaninoff’s music, but this is one work where he pretty much broods from the very first bar all the way to the last. It’s twenty minutes of brooding…but oh, what brooding it is.
The work was inspired by a painting that Rachmaninoff saw, by Arnold Böcklin. He saw the painting in a black-and-white reproduction, and that was enough to inspire him. Here’s the painting as he saw it:
A somewhat desolate island, comprised of a wall of great rocks with mossy growth, and a stone stair from the sheltered inlet up to what looks like a gravesite; the interior of the island is dominated by tall cypress trees, which are often used in cemeteries. A boat approaches, with a figure standing aboard, shrouded in white. Behind the standing figure is an oarsman, and before the white-shrouded figure is what looks like a casket.
Around the interior surfaces of the rock walls are what appear to be entrances to crypts, and there’s a sense of slight overgrowth from the vines overhanging the rocks bounding the isle, and the porticos flanking the white steps.
Böcklin’s painting was very popular in the 19th century, and reproductions abounded; Böcklin himself produced several more versions than the one that Rachmaninoff saw in black-and-white reproduction. Interestingly, it may be that we owe a great debt to the fact that Rachmaninoff did see the black-and-white version first, as he actually didn’t care for the color versions he later saw!
From Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Life in Music, by Bertensson and Leyda:
From January through March  he composed the orchestral poem whose subject he had sought for two years: The Isle of the Dead. It was not Morozov [Nikolai Semyonovich Morozov, a fellow composer and friend], but Rachmaninoff’s new Dresden friend, Nikolai Struve, who first suggested the Böcklin painting as the subject for a symphonic poem; and Rachmaninoff’s first acquaintance with the painting, through a reproduction seen in Paris in the summer of 1907, made a stronger impression on him than did any of the several versions of the painting that he later saw in Berlin and Leipzig: “I was not much moved by the color of the painting. If I had seen the original first, I might not have composed my Isle of the Dead. I like the picture best in black and white.”
Fortunately, Rachmaninoff was less secretive about this source for his symphonic poem than he was for other works that came into being from outside strictly musical sources. He once said of the Isle, “There must be something definite before my mind to convey a definite impression, or the ideas refuse to appear.” And he gave another glimpse of his method when he said, on another occasion:
“When composing, I find it of great help to have in mind a book just recently read, or a beautiful picture, or a poem. Sometimes a definite story is kept in mind, which I try to convey into tones without disclosing the source of my inspiration.”
Rachmaninoff would therefore take inspiration from works outside music, but he was loathe to delve too deeply into the nature of that inspiration, likely lest any future listeners try to engage in critique from a standpoint of literalism. Rachmaninoff isn’t strictly depicting the Isle of the Dead here, but he is meditation on it, and its nature, and on what the journey there must be like.
Here, by the way, is one of the color versions Böcklin produced:
There’s more clarity here, but I’m not unsympathetic to Rachmaninoff’s preference: the black-and-white version does seem to be less grounded in literalism than the color version(s).
As the work progresses from those opening soft bars, a sort of inevitability creeps into the emotional fabric of the work, even as that 5/8 rocking rhythm ebbs, at times disappears, and then returns. The 5/8 time signature is totally appropriate, as there is nothing regularly rhythmic about the rocking of a boat, is there? A boat is not like a train which rocks in its own mechanical way. The sea is not a machine, and the ultimate destination is not a place of mortal construct. Around four minutes in the rocking rhythm builds again to a series of brass chords, perhaps illustrating not our arrival at the island but a moment when it comes into view, and when the destination cannot be denied. After this the rocking vanishes for a time, and instead the tone becomes more gentle, with muted strings echoing behind the brooding in the winds. This section builds too, though, through a long passage of yearning before the rocking rhythm finally reasserts itself. And when it comes back—about nine minutes in—it’s no longer quietly churning. Now the music becomes actively stormy, even as the tempo remains unchanged.
Something deeply interesting happens as the stormy churning and the upwards yearning continues, though: about eleven minutes in all the clouds part, and a passage of gorgeous and sensual lyricism dawns in the high strings. The emergence of this stunning melody, almost rapturous, from storm and strife preceding it, is pure Rachmaninoff. It’s what he does better than just about anyone else. It’s hard not to hear in this passage a sad remembrance of a life ending, the regret of things done and not done, said and not said. This is underscored by how easily this rapturous passage gives way to more storm, more stress, more conflict. All of this gets stormier and stormier until it finally arrives on a sequence of smashing chords, which are followed by virtual silence—think of the wave breaking itself against a rock—and then Rachmaninoff begins quoting the Dies irae, just as he later would in the Paganini Rhapsody. (See last week’s newsletter!)
The mood is hushed now, even when the lyric theme is quoted in brief…before the harsh chords, not so loud as before but still undiminished in their authority sound again…and the rocking rhythm returns. The Dies irae is heard again near the ending, after the work’s meditations on death continue, and in the end, all we are left with is the rocking, endless rocking. Is the boat leaving to pick up another? Or does our vantage point end with the boat’s arrival? It’s not for me to say.
Isle of the Dead is a deeply profound work that stands alongside Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration as a symphonic exploration of the end of life; if Rachmaninoff’s work is pictorially based, that in no way lessens its impact or its insight. Isle is also an insightful musical depiction of a specific voyage over water, as much so as Smetana’s Moldau or Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold. Some of the orchestral tone-painting in Isle puts me in mind of some of the most atmospheric music of the French Impressionists—think Ravel, and certain passages in Daphnis et Chloe, for example.
I have no idea just how illustrative Isle of the Dead is of Rachmaninoff’s general view on death. Dylan Thomas would later urge us to “rage against the dying of the light”, but Rachmaninoff recognizes that there is more to our shared end than just rage. There is remembrance and light and sadness…all of it accompanied by the slow rocking of that boat, bringing us to the Isle where we all must go.
Next up: Apologies to Tchaikovsky, but possibly the greatest piano concerto by a Russian, ever.