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Composed: 1909
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = 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
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 1932, Artur Rodzinski conducting

In May 1907, Rachmaninoff participated in Diaghilev’s Saison Russe in Paris, playing his own Piano Concerto No. 2, with Arthur Nikisch conducting. While in Paris he saw a monochrome reproduction of the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead). Böcklin painted five different versions of the piece between 1880 and 1886 and reproductions of it abounded in Europe. Depicting the arrival of a small boat at a desolate island seen across dark waters, the painting – which Böcklin called a “dream image” – had a profound effect on Rachmaninoff, like so many others at the time. Vladimir Nabokov noted that prints of it were “found in every Berlin home,” and it could also be found in the offices of Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin, and Georges Clemenceau. (Adolf Hitler bought the third version of the painting in 1933. It was originally painted in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer, Fritz Gurlitt, who gave the work its title. Böcklin had called the earlier versions Die Gräberinsel, The Grave Island.)

Although he was quite moved by his experience with Böcklin’s image, Rachmaninoff did not write his symphonic poem on the subject until 1909, at a house he had taken in Dresden. (He also was able to see the color original of Böcklin’s fifth version of the painting in Leipzig. Rachmaninoff said that if he had originally seen it in color, he might not have composed the work.) He completed it in April, and conducted the premiere in Moscow two weeks later.

The piece begins softly and darkly, swelling up in 5/8 waves that suggest an implacable barcarolle, funereal but not macabre or grotesque. The music grows steadily to a climax as the island is approached. The second portion of the piece also begins softly, marked tranquillo, and it too rises to an urgent, massive climax. Rachmaninoff incorporates the Dies irae plainchant from the medieval requiem mass, a favorite “mortality” theme of his (used most famously perhaps in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; see below), but this section, in 3/4 meter, has a liberated, ecstatic feeling, as the emotional journey arrives at catharsis and acceptance after grief and mourning. At the end, the 5/8 rowing returns, gentled by context.

The pictorial and metaphorical aspects of the piece are supported by music of great craft and inspiration. Rachmaninoff finds an amazing range of warm and glinting color within an essentially somber palette, and extends and intensifies his organically growing lines with fluent contrapuntal combinations.

— John Henken