A black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin was the inspiration for the piece.
Isle of the Dead (Russian: Остров мёртвых), Op. 29, is a symphonic poem composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, written in the key of A minor. He concluded the composition while staying in Dresden in 1908. It is considered a classic example of Russian late-Romanticism of the beginning of the 20th century.
The piece was inspired by a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin‘s painting, Isle of the Dead, which Rachmaninoff saw in Paris in 1907. Rachmaninoff was disappointed by the original painting when he later saw it, 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.”
The music begins by suggesting the sound of the oars as they meet the waters on the way to the Isle of the Dead. The slowly heaving and sinking music could also be interpreted as waves. Rachmaninoff uses a recurring figure in 5/8 time to depict what may be the rowing of the oarsman or the movement of the water, and as in several other of his works, quotes the Dies Irae plainchant, an allusion to death. In contrast to the theme of death, the 5/8 time also depicts breathing, creating a holistic reflection on how life and death are intertwined.
In 1929, Rachmaninoff conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a recording of the music for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was purchased by RCA that same year and became known as RCA Victor. This recording was made in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, using one microphone, and was later reissued on LP and CD by RCA Victor.