A symphonic work by Sergey Rakhmaninov
(1873-1943), based upon a painting of the same name by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin
The piece was composed in early 1909, although its genesis began a few years earlier, when the composer saw a black and white reproduction of Böcklin's painting. It was an interesting time, musically speaking. Romanticism was breathing its last breaths, Impressionism was making the rounds, Modernism was just taking root (think Rite of Spring, 1913). What a time for a young, sensitive, Russian pianist, composer, and conductor to be living!
Rakhmaninov was never one to be interested in Zeitgeist, though. Throughout his career, he would stick to a highly Romantic style, with lush orchestration and expansive forms. The Isle of the Dead is itself a symphonic poem in the tradition of Franz Liszt, as opposed to Richard Strauss, in that it depicts a general mood or impression, as opposed to a narrative.
The work is generally considered to be one of the composer's finest, even earning a few performances by Arturo Toscanini, who wasn't a great fan of Rakhmaninov's compositions. While it certainly doesn't beat some of Rakhmaninov's works for piano, it certainly ranks highly in terms of his purely orchestral work.
Interestingly, that Rakhmaninov first encountered a reproduction of Böcklin's work is significant. He comments later on, in a 1927 interview:
'The massive architecture and the mystic message of the painting made a marked impression on me, and the tone poem was the outcome ... If I had seen the original first, I might not have composed the work.'
The painting depicts Charon
rowing a recently departed soul to the "Isle of the Dead." The Isle looms large and close, the soul bright but insignificant in comparison. The waters are calm, and there is a sense of submission to inevitability as the boat nears the Isle, which seems ready to swallow it whole.
Rakhmaninov depicts the soul's yearning for life once more in a rising string motive, which works up intensity before reaching a climax, after which the soul seems to accept eternal repose. The meter is an assymmetrical 5/8, depicting the steady rhythm of Charon's oars. You also hear, in the low pizzicato notes that outline the meter, the inevitability of death. But the inevitability here isn't one of anguish or torture, but rather of calm, of finding peace with the way things are. So even while the soul struggles against death, we always know, deep down, that death is certain and in its own way, calming.
Besides the original material Rakhmaninov uses, he also makes use of the Dies Irae plainchant from the Requiem Mass. It isn't Rakhmaninov's first use of the plainchant, and won't be the last. Thus, we have a clear, musical connection to the theme of death, thus not requiring us to know the painting in order to understand the piece.