Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”: A Tone Poem in Black and White

In 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov saw a black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin. The haunting dream image depicts a solitary rowboat carrying a coffin, bound for a desolate, rocky island. The scene suggests the mythological River Styx and the transition of a recently deceased soul to the afterlife. The image affected Rachmaninov deeply and inexplicably. It was a powerful, immediate, and spontaneous creative …

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