Halloween: An Epic Journey to The Isle of the Dead

“A dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” ~ Arnold Böcklin

As our collective fascination with death prevails at this time of year, my thoughts drifted to Rachmaninoff’s evocative symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, completed in early 1909.

This haunting music was composed after Rachmaninoff had seen a black and white reproduction of the painting Isle of the Dead, exhibited in Paris two years earlier.

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

The original and subsequent versions of the Isle of the Dead paintings were created in colour by the romantic Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901).

Between 1880 and 1886 he painted a total of five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead. The original painting was commissioned by his patron, Alexander Günther which was spotted half-finished, sitting on an easel in his Florence studio by German widow Maria Berna. This is often referred to as the Basel version.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

She persuaded him to add the female figure and the draped coffin to the solitary rowing boat in memory of her deceased husband. Maria’s painting (version two) was a smaller painting (29 x 48 inches) of oil on wood, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Böcklin must have admired Maria’s idea as he then also added the figure and coffin to his original painting. These first two paintings were titled Die Gräberinsel (Tomb Island) by Böcklin. The enduring ‘Isle of the Dead’ name that all the versions now go by was suggested by art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Painting number three was done in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials: A.B. The painting was sold in 1933 when it was acquired by Adolf Hitler, where it hung in the Berghof in Obersalzberg. After 1940 it was moved to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its less contentious home these days is in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version number four, (upon which Rachmaninoff’s music is based), was created in 1884 due to financial pressures, and was bought by art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen. Luckily a black and white photograph was taken of the painting before it was destroyed by fire during World War II.

Rachmaninoff eventually got to see the fifth and final colour version (painted in 1886) at the museum of fine Arts in Leipzig. He commented that he much preferred the earlier black and white version and that he would not have been inspired to compose his opus 29 had he seen the colour version first instead.

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

“When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.” ~ Sergei Rachmaninoff referring to his orchestral opus 29 in A minor, Isle of the Dead.

Possible inspiration

halloween-pondikonissi_islandIt has been proposed that the Greek islet of Pontikonisi near Corfu, with its Byzantine chapel and Cypress trees was the main inspiration for the painting, along with the high volcanic walls of Strombolicchio. Also the English Cemetery in Florence, where Böcklin’s infant daughter was buried served as the location for the painting of the first three versions. Another suggestion is St. George’s Island in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

Overview of the music by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra :

Rachmaninov begins with the irregular movement of oars in the water. (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, completed just four years earlier, also begins with the stroke of oars on a lake.) The opening is dark—just low strings, with timpani and harp at first—and mysterious. For a very long time, we move forward with little sense of destination, but with a growing urgency. (Tantalizing melodic fragments appear from time to time, like glimpses through the mist, and a haunting high violin theme takes wing at one point.)

Finally, the island comes into sight, the music gathers force and direction, and at last we hear the Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead—a motto of mortality that recurs often in Rachmaninov’s music. Then suddenly the music is suffused with life—urgent, passionate, and joyous. (Here Rachmaninov departs from the painting, although Böcklin did in fact paint a complementary Isle of Life two years after his last Isle of the Dead canvas.) But the Dies Irae rings out, and the music is again clouded in shadows. The ending is mostly still, and we are left where we began, with the sound of ceaseless rowing.

Two spine tingling versions:

Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

An arrangement for 2 pianos sourced from my favourite treasure trove of classical music, with Zdeňka Kolářová and Martin Hrše of the Prague Piano Duo:

In honour of  Böcklin  and Rachmaninoff, as well as the historical origins of our modern interpretation of Halloween, I’ve written a few verses of my own:

Journey to The Isle of the Dead

Deep, melancholy chords escort me to the Isle of the Dead,

Remote, alabaster tombs protrude, rising from darkness and dread.

Monotonous oars glide through glassy, unfathomable depths…

No wind to rustle the sombre shroud of Cypress leaves,

Oil on canvas for widow Maria; a window to her dreams.


Reverent brush strokes paint entry to immortal sleep,

The fatal shore beckons: come, come, your soul to reap.

Cross the silent, still surface, to peace or purgatory…

Within the high, pale rock, lies the secret of eternity,

Destiny concealed from searching, inquisitive fervency.


Five versions, against muted backdrop of foreboding firmament

Greys and blues, softened by nebulous cloud; omnipotent.

Navigate lofty cemetery through the watery gates…

Sea and sky blend and merge, in subtle, never-ending horizon,

Arrival assured: but no departure possible, from Death’s Island.


Rhythmic notes on the stave narrate a deathly story,

Atmospheric melody; oppressive, mythical and eerie.

A final journey to the sea-bound realm beyond the living…

Corpses lay buried, side by side, forever to abide,

Within the endless cavern of souls; life doth hide.


Hallowed art and music, death’s mystery shall convey,

Sacred and ancient celebration – All Saints’ Day.

‘Samhain’ bids Gaelic farewell to light; to summer’s passing…

Hallow –e’en, from 18th century Scottish: ‘All-Hallows-Even’

Holy Eve before the rising; for death is conquered in heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Happy Halloween!

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 17th Century: Corelli

“In Italy it was not only the human voice that began to sing. The principle that singing is breathing tool a firm hold on all the music. It is well known how the violin began to sing. Soon there came into being style, and forms, and a special kind of music-making, in which the chief figure was the soloist.” ~ Boris Asafyev

It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research into this Italian baroque superstar that I began to realise just how talented, influential and virtuosic Corelli really was for his epoch.

Arcangelo Corelli

I knew his work mainly through playing his violin sonata, La Folia – twenty three variations on a theme inspired by the folk music of the people. This final work (sonata number twelve in D minor), of his fifth opus encompasses all the violin techniques that had been used in the sonatas that came before it.

Here is my favourite interpretation of the work by violinist Henryk Szeryng. His technique is clean and smooth but infused with emotion and with baroque style embellishments, I just love it!

To understand the influence and relevance that Corelli still has in classical music, it helps to look back at the zeitgeist that Corelli lived and worked in, that blossoming period of creativity in music, the arts and human evolution – the Italian Renaissance – and the importance of Italian musicians in the development of the violin (and cello) in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Corelli paved the way for his equally brilliant violin and composer compatriots Antonio Vivaldi and Guiseppe Tartini (who I’ll write about in later posts).

Arcangelo Corelli: (17 February 1653 – 8 January 1713)

In the 17th Century the Italian city of Bologna was a flourishing centre for music and the arts, a place where musicians, composers and singers would meet, perform and discuss music, prompting its sobriquet “the Italian Athens” by Carlo Goldoni.

One of the societies in Bologna was the renowned Academia di Filarmonici, founded in 1666, of which Corelli was a member; he passed their admission audition at the tender age of seventeen.

Accademia_filarmonica Bologna

The youngest of five children, Corelli was raised by his mother as his father died shortly before his birth. It is thought that Corelli’s early music tuition was undertaken by a priest in the town of Faenza, When he was thirteen he moved to Bologna.

There can be no questioning Corelli’s violin pedagogy – he hailed from the Bologna Violin School, founded by Ercole Gaibara. Corelli signed his first three Trio Sonatas, “Arcangelo Corelli from Fusignano, called the Bolognese.” I don’t think it was because he liked pasta!

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Jan Frans Douven.

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Jan Frans Douven.

It is thought Corelli may have been an admirer of the French baroque composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

During the second half of the 17th century Corelli and his fellow musicians were not concerned with technical possibilities on the violin, they followed a more eloquent path, one with a desire to create deeper emotional content, to typify forms, to adhere to simplicity, clarity and lyricism, as well as bringing together chamber and sacred music in sonata and concerto forms and to explore instrumental music as a means of expression.

12 Concerti Grossi (Opus 6)

Corelli found fame through his violin sonatas and his twelve concerti grossi composed under opus 6. One of my all-time favourites is his Concerto Grosso number 8 in G minor, Fatto per la Notte di Natale (Christmas Concerto), performed here by the Accademia degli Astrusi and Federico Ferri in the Teatro Communale di Bologna:

In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the publication of the Opus 6 concertos in Amsterdam in 1714, Voices of Music recorded this delightful performance of Concerto Grosso number 4 in D Major on period instruments. It explodes with pure joy!

I just recently purchased the ABRSM violin Grade 8 music listing with some scores for the 2016 – 19 syllabus, and one of the pieces on List A is Corelli’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in G minor, Opus 5, specifically the Adagio and Vivace. I might just choose this as one of my three exam pieces. Here is the sonata in its entirety:

Corelli moved to Rome in about 1675 living in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni until his death. He founded and headed the Rome Violin School, gave violin lessons as well as continuing to compose and play in chapels himself. Two of his students were Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Locatelli, who became great violinists and composers in their own right.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 in D Major, Opus 6 played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Nicholas McGegan:

Corelli’s Opus 6 concertos fall into two broad structural categories. The first stems from the Italian tradition of the sonata da chiesa, or “church” sonata, consisting of a series of movements in alternating tempi (slow and fast), often employing rich contrapuntal textures. In contrast, the sonata da camera, or “chamber” sonata, is assembled as a suite, featuring dances such as the allemande, corrente, sarabanda, gavotta, and giga in addition to instrumental preludes and intervening movements.

Transcriptions based on La Folia

The expressive theme of Corelli’s Folia (already an existing theme that he modified), was to be used later by composers Alexander Alabiev in his ballet The Magic Drum, Franz Liszt in his Spanish Rhapsody and Sergei Rachmaninoff in his Variations on a theme of Corelli.

The inimitable Cziffra:

A Russian affair with Ashkenazy:

Corelli the composer is inseparable from Corelli the performer. According to Corelli’s pupils and other contemporaries, his style of execution was distinguished by exceptional expressiveness and dignity. He could be lyrical, thoughtful and absorbed and at the same time animated, emotional, headlong.

By limiting the compass of the violin to three positions (2.5 octaves), roughly the equivalent of the human voice, and by limiting his bowing technique to the detache and legato strokes, Corelli strove to obtain a greater effect from the expressive means he used so sparingly. His use of polyphonic devices (two voices) and arpeggio bowing and bariole were rather daring for his time.  ~ Dr. Lev Ginsburg

A period instrumental arrangement of la Folia by baroque musician Jordi Savall and his ensemble:

Corelli’s music was published in six opera, each opus containing 12 compositions: Opus 1 (1681), 2 (1685), 3 (1689), and 4 (1694) are trio sonatas; Opus 5 (1700), solo sonatas for violin and continuo; and Opus 6 (1714), concerti grossi for string orchestra.

La Follia by Corelli

Corelli wrote forty-eight trio sonatas made up into four volumes, (Op. 1-4, the last of which appeared in 1694), twelve sonatas for violin and bass (Op.5 published in 1700) and twelve concerti grossi Op. 6 (which were published posthumously).

His legacy extended to the 18th century Italian violin school as well as providing inspiration to the baroque greats, George Frederick Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach. His music continues to influence modern composers, such as 20th century composer Michael Tippett, who wrote Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli:

Corelli was laid to rest in the Pantheon in Rome, (as is the High Renaissance painter Raphael), having collected around 150 fine works of art by the likes of Trevisani, Onofri and Dughet, as well as many fine violins by the time of his death.

Interior of the Pantheon by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

Interior of the Pantheon by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

The Purcell Quartet playing Sonata da Camera, Op. 4 No. 9 in B-Flat Major:

12 Violin Sonatas Opus 5, brought to vivid life by Arthur Grumiaux:

“If you take a violin, you can make it sound 50 different ways. Not just pizzicato and played by the bow, but ponticello, and harmonics, and tremolos. If you take an oboe and play it, there’s about one way you can make it sound: like an oboe.” ~ John Corigliano