Isle of the Dead, op. 29

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            Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style.  And it is of little consequence whether or not their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics.   Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally is to work within tradition and commonly-understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision.   Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages.   Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy.   And it must be admitted, that there is an innate prejudice among many intellectuals—especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology—that the new is necessary the good.   The latest styles are more sophisticated; hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them.  This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.

            Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as a more or less old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance.  His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried.  Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement.  While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.

            In 1907 Rachmaninoff, while performing in Paris, saw a black and white reproduction of a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin, which profoundly gripped his imagination.  Entitled Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead), it depicted a boat rowed by an oarsman over dark waters carrying a coffin and a solitary mourner draped in white.  The boat is approaching a gloomy island with huge rocky outcrops, symbolic cypress trees, and the impression of crypts hollowed into the looming cliffs.  It was a wildly popular painting (the artist painted five versions of it), and reproductions hung everywhere—in modest middle-class homes and in the offices of luminaries.  Even Hitler bought one of the five original paintings.  An island cemetery, of course, is one of the common tropes of Romanticism—from San Michele in Venice, where Stravinsky and Diaghilev are buried, to the graves of J. J. Rousseau and Princess Diana.  Two years later, in 1909, while living in Dresden, Rachmaninoff composed his symphonic poem inspired by the painting, and conducted the première in Moscow shortly thereafter.

            The symphonic poem, or “tone poem” is an important genre that more or less originated with Liszt. It became the quintessential orchestral means of “telling a story” with a symphony orchestra.  More or less the antithesis of a symphony—as in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—the symphonic poem takes as its subject matter, not just an abstract musical theme, but something in the real world and develops a depiction of it, and perhaps a narrative.  It is the darling of those who prefer music to be “about” something, and went on to become an important part of romantic musical style in the orchestra.  Some choice subjects of Liszt’s symphony poems included:  battle scenes, a Shakespeare play, a philosophical idea, poems, a Victor Hugo story, and so forth.  Richard Strauss went on to write memorable ones that were very specific in their narrative threads:  this happened, and then this, and so on.

            Other symphonic poems are much more abstract and concerned with impressions of moods and general situations, for example.  And Isle of the Dead is just that—it’s all about death and its symbols, inspired by just one image.  To a degree that is similar to Debussy’s La Mer, a wide-ranging impression of the sea.

            Isle of the Dead begins softly and ambiguously in the harp and low strings, in five-eight time, seeming to depict the irregular movement of Charon’s oars in the lapping water. Throughout, one hears intimations of one of the composer’s favorite musical motifs, beloved by so many composers—the Dies iræ, the “day of wrath” from the medieval mass for the dead. The relentless undulations gradually lead to a powerful climax, but gently subside into a sepulchral iteration of the chant motive in the brass.  The middle section begins lighter and more tranquil—in a more optimistic key.  Rachmaninoff, himself, refers to its “life” motive.  The hopeful optimism builds to two passionate climaxes, but the ardent, futile attempt for hope is demolished by loud hammer strokes in the whole orchestra.  A soft, imaginative passage follows, led by a solo clarinet, in which the chant is heard overlapping in three different note values—a creative allusion to an ancient canonic technique.  Brief solos by violin and, oboe and clarinets introduce a transition to the crepuscular gloom of the beginning.  Now, the Dies iræ motive is even more in evidence, with its last reference in the strings and low woodwinds.  After which the work concludes in a soft resignation to life’s finality.

            Rachmaninoff’s life and work is perhaps the eloquent example of an artist who found profound opportunities in established perspectives.  In the words of the conductor, Leon Botstein, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:  “Rachmaninoff retained the notion that music serves as a reminder of sheer joy, beauty and happiness in dark times.”  Precisely.

  --Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan