Isle of the Dead

No relation to anything: one of my favourite pieces of music is The Isle of the Dead, by Rachmaninov. It seems a sadly-neglected little piece, which I never used to hear played or mentioned often back when I listened to the radio regularly. I hope that that’s changed, but I doubt it. There’s an impression, not entirely ill-founded, that Rachmaninov was only a piano composer – solo piano or piano and orchestra; but Isle confutes this utterly.

The Isle of the Dead is a symphonic tone poem, about twenty minutes long, dealing with the journey over the Styx to the Elysian fields (or a Romantic equivalent). For those who don’t know, a tone poem is a romantic form of music in which the notes attempt to paint an image, or describe an event – often inspired by poems, or, as in this case, by paintings. Accordingly, we hear what can be interpreted as numerous mimicries – oars in the water, the swell, the waves crashing against the shore, the gentler lapping of the water in the streams on the island, the violins and flutes of spirits of the dead, and so on.

In its larger form, too, there is the image of the water – the music is essentially a series of slow crescendos and decrescendos, like a series of waves washing over us. Througout, there is a battle between the primary theme of the water and the oars and the secondary themes, which we may associate with the life of the spirits of the dead – the one dark, brooding, relentless, the others straining, struggling, complicated, with glimpses of beauty, but always bittersweet and unsuccessful.

The poem is a masterpiece of Romantic craft – the orchestration lush and soft for the recurring water theme, but not afraid of brass and discord for the dramatic moments. It is perhaps an early glimpse of minimalism – the water theme is an incredibly simple 5/8 rhythm churning relentlessly throughout at least half of the music, and even when it is not present, there is always (with the exception of a few agonisingly tense lulls to silence) the threat, or promise of its return, as it interacts organically with the chaotic themes of life. At several points it seems to be less waves or oars and more heavy, laboured, agonised breathing, as though the piece were really a rather dark poem about life itself – death ever-present, beating in every breath, always struggled against, always inevitable. The music, though it grabs a few moments of serenity along the way, is always driven by the oars, and sinks down again and again into the darkness of the water, until finally the boatman rows out of sight of the island.

Technically, there’s really nothing to complain about. The orchestration is sophisticated, the melodies are affecting (the main theme memorable), the composition is impeccable in its balance and symmetry, the development is always logical and never jarring. The 5/8 rhythm, and it’s driving, inescapable insistence, are powerfully modern. It’s really the high point of late Romantic ability. If it has a flaw it’s that, as with most tone poems, it is a little light, a little showy, a little two balanced in form and a little too little developed – as we might expect from a form of such brevity, and where the music is forced to make sacrifices to the image it is to convey. It is one of the best tone poems, in my opinion, because for once there seems no conflict between the form and the music – the music genuinely does suggest the mental image that is intended, and the structure the image produces is conducive to a symmetrical piece.

It is also one of my favourite pieces because of its unusual tone. It is extremely dark, and not afraid of the lower octaves – but it is a sort of darkness that is rare. Many dark pieces, particularly modern ones, try to sear the soul; others aim at a sorrowful but resilient beauty, such as one finds in the great slow movements. Others drive forward relentlessly, chasing you on to the next movement. Because this is a tone poem, there is nowhere to go, and yet the music is not passive – this is not ‘slow movement’ music. So it simply rises and falls, atmospherically. The darkness is not painful, it is at worst brooding, perhaps a little menacing, occassionally a little chilling. It’s not something I find often.

It is, yes, a little melodramatically gothic. It’s the sort of music teenagers could listen to repeatedly to persuade themselves they’re depressed – but it’s a little too light to let them succede. It isn’t great art – but for what it is, it’s wonderfully done.

Anyway, my main conclusion from revisiting it (I used to listen to it frequently as a teenager, and then lost track of the CD for several years), is that I really need to go and give his symphonies another go. I seem to recall them being quite dull, but perhaps I just wasn’t ready for them.


3 thoughts on “Isle of the Dead

  1. Corumayas says:

    Rachmaninov’s second symphony is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion (though it is long-winded, and the last movement is the weakest of the four). I’d put it on a par with the middle concertos. (It has a certain reputation among musicians: when the youth orchestra I was in during high school played it, someone predicted the pregnancy rate in the orchestra would go up several hundred percent. It also contains one of the hardest passages for violins I’ve ever played, in the middle of the scherzo.)

    His others I can’t speak for– I’ve heard them each maybe once or twice, and they didn’t make a particularly strong impression (except for the rather forbidding subtitle of the first: “Vengence is mine; I will repay, says the Lord”). The Symphonic Dances (a late work, from the 40s) are very well-constructed, but maybe not quite substantial enough to justify their length.

    My favorite tone poems are Sibelius’… especially some of the early ones, like En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite (aka Four Legends from the Kalevala). The “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” movement from the latter is unlike anything else– it sounds like glaciers creeping over a barren landscape, slowly grinding everything in their path to gravel. Brilliantly orchestrated too… who else would accompany the softest, stillest moments with a barely-audible snare drum roll– like a hint of cold wind blowing across the stage? Glorious stuff.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    I think my father has the symphonies, so I’ll go back and listen to them in the near future, most likely. He’s certainly got the second.

    What is it with Rachmaninov and the number two? It’s his second concerto that’s the famous one too (and the best, I think, for all that it’s saccherine enough to be on an american christmas card – although I’ve only heard the fourth once or twice).

    Have you heard his choral symphony, “The Bells”? Supposedly it’s one of his masterpieces, but I’ve never heard it, nor, so far as I can recall, even seen a copy.

    I’ll definitely check out the Sibelius pieces, which I hadn’t heard of, despite loving almost all the Sibelius I have (the violin concerto can be a bit… violin-concerto-y, if you know what I mean).

    It’s strange; I’ve grown up with this music, and have been finding things for myself for at least ten years now, and yet I’m constantly discovering things I hadn’t heard of, or things I hadn’t bothered to listen to. A couple of months ago I made the truly shocking discovery that some of Bruckner’s symphonies weren’t awful. There’re actually fairly solid romantic fair – and one of them (can’t off hand remember which) even had some clever and memorable ideas in it. I realise I’ve actually very little experience of the high side of romanticism – I think I was put off by Berlioz and Wagner, but as a result I know hardly any Brahms or Liszt or Schumann or anything like that. I’ve always listened to what I would see as the lighter, defter, more classical tradition instead – Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky etc. Yet even in that side of things I’ve barely touched Mendelsohn outside the obvious (Hebrides, Violin Concerto).

    So much to listen to…

  3. […] also was moved at one point to post this, a brief “review” of a lesser-known work of classical […]

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