Niel5 Isle

Severance Hall
October 24 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

October 26 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem, Opus 29

Sergei Rachmaninoff  (1873-1943)
composed 1909

At a Glance

Rachmaninoff composed his symphonic poem Isle of the Dead (in Russian, “Ostov myortvykh”) in 1909 in Dresden and conducted the Moscow Philharmonic Society in the work’s premiere on April 18, 1909. 

This work runs about 20 minutes in performance.  Rachmaninoff scored it for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), harp, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed The Isle of the Dead during a weekend of concerts in October 1934, led by music director Artur Rodzinski.  Rodzinski conducted it again in 1942, in a pair of concerts featuring Rachmaninoff as pianist in his own Second Piano Concerto.  The symphonic poem has been presented on just two additional occasions, in November 1991 led by Alexander Lazarev, and in February 2013 conducted by Giannandrea Noseda.

About the Music

Compared to the number of orchestral works inspired by literature, those that take their subjects from paintings or other physical artworks are relatively few in number.  Of these, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead is surely one of the most powerful.  The composer not only created a musical translation of what his eyes saw, he also provided a meditation on the great themes of life and death which the picture suggests. 

The artistry of Swiss landscape painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) was much admired at the turn of the 20th century.   His Bild zum Träumen [Dream-Picture], later renamed Toteninsel or “Isle of the Dead,” was particularly esteemed.  The German composer Max Reger wrote a series of four tone poems after four Böcklin works, including the Toteninsel; so did the Swiss composer Huber.  But Rachmaninoff’s tone poem is an outstanding contribution to the genre, and one of his finest orchestral works.  He composed it between January and March 1909 during one of his stays in Dresden, having seen a black and white copy of the painting, apparently in Paris. 

In fact, Böcklin made at least six different versions of the painting. The first hangs in the Kunstmuseum, Basel, with later versions in Berlin, New York, Leipzig, and Saint Petersburg.  They all show a small boat approaching an island on which a group of very tall cypress trees are enclosed in a semicircle of massive rocks.  There is ongoing dispute as to whether island that inspired the paintings is Pondikonisi (near Corfu, Greece) or Ponza (near Ischia, Italy) or Saint George in the Adriatic’s Bay of Kotor (in what is today Montenegro).  

Wherever the island is, real or imagined, it is certainly a stark and awesome place, marked as a cemetery by the slabs of stone and the surrounding cypresses. The figure of Death can be seen standing over a linen-draped casket at the front of the boat being rowed toward the island.  

In Rachmaninoff’s music, the heavy movement of oars is suggested by a lopsided ostinato figure in 5/8 time, and the music builds inexorably as various instruments join the swell.  Few composers could control a series of orchestral crescendos as skillfully, and this one eventually leading to a series of climaxes. 

The themes are shadowy, often suggesting the plainchant Dies Irae found so often in Rachmaninoff’s music, and the presence of death persists right to the end, when the boat is heard pulling away from the island.  

The strain of fatalism in Rachmaninoff’s character brought forth music of unequaled power.  Some of this had rubbed off on him from Tchaikovsky (and, perhaps, from a certain Russian artistic bent), but Rachmaninoff was able to convey the darkest corners of the soul more potently than any other composer of his time. 

Hugh Macdonald © 2019