Analysis of Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

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The work “Isle of the Dead OP. 29,” is mainly a symphonic poem that was composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff and written in the A minor key. The poem was inspired by a painting done by Arnold Böcklin who was a Swiss artist (Handayani, Bintang, and Maximiliano, 354). The art shows an island with a barricade of stones standing in front of it. Further out of the island a large rock juts out of the sea containing large chambers for the dead. Additionally, a black-clad helmsman is observed operating a boat on the waters.

The instrumentation is orchestra involving two oboes, English horn, two bassoons, 2, clarinets, three trombones, three trumpets a French horn, strings, harp, and a bass drum.  The music commences by suggesting the voice of the oars while they encounter the waters as they head to the island. The composition starts with a rhythmic motif that is played by muted hub and cellos. The voices of the slowly sinking and heaving music could be further interpreted as waves. Rachmaninoff utilises a recurrent figure in 5/8 time, which portrays water movements or rowing of the oarsman. Furthermore, the 5/8 meter depicts breathing that creates a holistic reflection regarding how death and life are intertwined (Rachmaninoff).

The melody of the work involves the Dies Irae theme which can be considered as the artistic expression of Rachmaninoff’s melancholy. A sombre second theme ensues, presented by the French horn, which reinforces the depressed mood. The music then becomes intense and restless, the tempo increases, and orchestral colours appear signifying the climax of the music. Ultimately, the music subsides, however, afterwards, more references to the Dies Irae theme ensue. A new theme emerges on reeds and strings to an intense climax after which a piece of the Dies Irae melody controls the grim musical landscape. Subsequently, the music begins to fade, and the opening’s dark material returns as the music end with an almost full account of the Dies Irae theme. The music takes approximately twenty-one minutes and twenty seconds.


            The music is an orchestral symphony written in A minor key with a 5/8 meter. Rachmaninoff was inspired by the Dies Irae theme which he seems to apply almost throughout the music. The music takes approximately 20 minutes and its one of the best orchestra composed during the 19th century.      

Works Cited

Handayani, Bintang, and Maximiliano Emanuel Korstanje. "Isle of the Dead: A Study of Trunyan Cemetery (Bali)." Handbook of Research on Technological Developments for Cultural Heritage and eTourism Applications. IGI Global, 2018. 354-376.

Rachmaninoff, Sergei. “Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic poem Op. 29 - Andrew Davis.” YouTube, uploaded by Variatio24, 23 November 2011,

October 05, 2023

Art Music

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