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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


In the early years of the twentieth century, the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff had been searching for inspiration for a Symphonic Poem. He even sought suggestions from friends, but none satisfied his questing mind.

In Paris, in 1907, Rachmaninoff saw a reproduction of the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin's painting, THE ISLE OF THE DEAD. In the painting, he saw a boat being rowed across water towards a sepulchral island, the picture turgid with the morbid melancholy that at times plagued the composer. He had found his muse in imagery.

Rachmaninoff composed his symphonic poem of the same name between January and March 1909, later making revisions and redactions, a process which culminated in the powerful musical composition that we know today. Written in an irregular, hypnotic five-beats-in-a-bar, the music's mournfully obsessive rhythm evokes the lapping of water and the sculling of oars. Like many other musical works of genius – for instance, Claude Debussy's LE CATHEDRALE ENGLOUTIE, its harrowing climax occurs at, approximately, the music's Golden Mean point.

But what of the painting that so inspired Rachmaninoff?

As it happened, Böcklin painted THE ISLE OF THE DEAD in different versions at least five times within seven years, beginning in 1880. The version that so impressed the great Russian composer was a black and white reproduction, possibly of Version 4.

THE ISLE OF THE DEAD - Arnold Böcklin. Version 4

Apparently, when Rachmaninoff later saw one of the original paintings, he was disappointed, saying

"If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my ISLE OF THE DEAD. I like it in black and white."

Rachmaninoff is perhaps best known in the mainstream for lyrical, passionate outpourings such as his second piano concerto. That concerto is a supreme work indeed, but it does not eclipse such incredible compositions as the SYMPHONIC DANCES op 45, one of several Rachmaninoff works laced with quotations of the darkly terrifying 'Dies Irae' (Day of Wrath) chant from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. THE ISLE OF THE DEAD also draws heavily on this doleful motif.

Let us look at the other four versions of Böcklin's canvas, each painted for a different client.

Each version is similar in general outlook. A boat is being rowed towards a rocky island, the central opening of which is shrouded by cypress or, more probably, yew trees, the species traditionally associated with death. (The legends and symbolism associated with this latter fact in itself, are fascinating, if anyone wishes to research them!)

The boat bears a shrouded figure and, in front of it, a draped coffin placed broadside-on according to the direction of the boat. The boatman is assumed to be Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology who transports the deceased across the River Styx. The white-shrouded figure might be the soul of the recently-departed, on its journey to the afterlife. The mood is dreamlike and heavy-laden.

Böcklin himself did not offer an interpretation for the paintings, merely stating that they were redolent of dream, as if they “must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door".

After the principal five versions, Böcklin painted a sixth, in 1901, the last year of his life, in collaboration with his son Carlo. I have been unable to find an image of this sixth version.

THE ISLE OF THE DEAD - Arnold Böcklin. Version 1

THE ISLE OF THE DEAD - Arnold Böcklin. Version 2

THE ISLE OF THE DEAD - Arnold Böcklin. Version 3

THE ISLE OF THE DEAD - Arnold Böcklin. Version 5

Version three was purchased by Adolf Hitler and is now a property of the German State.

In 1888, Böcklin painted DIE LEBENSINSEL (The Island of Life) in an effort, perhaps, to exorcise the morbidity of his earlier visions.

THE ISLAND OF LIFE - Arnold Böcklin, 1888

I must confess to preferring the twilight mystery of the ISLE OF THE DEAD series to this later 'Lebensinsel' painting, the imagery of which I find somewhat naively idealistic, a little akin to the illustrations in certain insidiously persuasive religious tracts.

The central figures in the water seem to be having a lot of fun though; but I don't like being in water, and I wouldn't want to get too close to those swans!

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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