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.