The Isle of the Dead: An Exploration of the Gothic


Rachmaninov's tone poem in A minor - 'The Isle of the Dead' - was composed after Rachmaninov viewed a black and white rendition of Arnold Bocklin's painting of the same name (pictured above). The piece of music you hear, then, is a piece which comes directly from a visual work. What's interesting here though is how so many 'Gothic' elements can be extracted from both pieces of art.

The idea of the Gothic and Romanticism are intrinsically linked. Both exist with the ideas of breaking boundaries and exploring beneath the surface of a piece of art. Deep, raw emotion plays a key part, as well as exploring boundaries, pushing and crossing these, and feelings of awe. Bockin's painting was given no direct explanation by its artist. It, however, evokes the tree-line of a cemetery in Florence. Perhaps the figure here is crossing the boundary between life and death. The structure in the centre of the piece is grand, exploring the idea of the Sublime, and the picture seems structured, yet very unsettled.

So what of Rachmaninov's tone poem? The first thing to note might be that it is largely in the irregular time-signature of 5/4 - 5 beats in a bar. This is, then perhaps, unsettled yet rooted in that particular structure. As the Gothic and Romanticsm are so intrinsically linked, the building, emotional features of the music as well as the many detailed levels of musical voices (some beneath the surface, some exploring the boundaries between the fore and background, and others very much at the centre of attention - liminal musicality, you might say...) that you might find in a tone poem come as no surprise. Perhaps the more emotional moments in the music represent the figure's journey - perhaps to rescue a loved one from the underworld? Perhaps on their own way to death? Perhaps guarding the afterlife? That's a lot of perhaps. But they joy here is in your own interpretation. What story is the painting telling? And what does the music have to say on the matter?

Taken in its absolute musical form, the piece is nothing short of epic, exploring tonalities, structures, melodies and instrumentation to perhaps their most extreme. Adding in an emotional level to that gives a whole new multitude of dimensions and perspectives that may be applied to the music. Furthermore, the relevance to past ideas and another artist's work amplifies this further. This is a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose, meta-artistic masterpiece. It very much tells a story - but of what? If you're willing to go right to the edges of your comfort zone and perception, and go beneath the surface to explore this piece's meanings, you can discover your own answer to that question.