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Classical Music Inspired by Islands

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Wooded Island Near Östanå, Stockholm


Islands vary in size from a few square meters to a huge land masses such as Greenland, and from the archetypally stunning with white tropical beaches and palm trees to unforgiving granite rocks.

Islands are forming and disappearing all the time and with the onset of climate change, there is the danger that many will be submerged by a rise sea level.

Sergei Rachmaninov 1873-1943

Photograph of Rachmaninov in 1921.

Photograph of Rachmaninov in 1921.

Rachmaninov. Isle of the Dead

It is not easy to successfully write a piece of music with five beats in a bar. The natural rhythmic cycles are 2, 3, 4 and 6 and occasionally 9. Five goes against the grain. To make it sound natural takes skill. Rachmaninov's handling of five is beautifully demonstrated in Isle of the Dead, so smooth you barely notice it. It is not five beats noticeably separated in Dave Brubek's swinging Take Five 1-2-3,1-2 and the almost frantic pulse of Bartok.

The Symphonic poem Isle of the Dead takes its title from a painting by Arnold Böcklin Rachmaninov had seen in Paris in 1907 in a black and white copy.1 It has been mooted that the 5 beats in a bar mimic the rowing action of the figure in the boat as he surges toward the island, dark and brooding in the middle of perhaps a lake.

The oarsman nears the island, and the craggy edifice looms higher and higher. As an animal, aware of its last hours will seek out a place to lie down and die, so the rower is allowing the Isle to throw an invisible rope to his little wooden craft and be pulled in to the shrouded bay.

The music increases in sound, the undulating swells, hypnotic and irresistibly beckoning, ceding to a heavenly and alluring wall of surround sound. The crag encloses him like great stony arms. The Isle cumulates its musical force by way of the Dies Irae, the song for the dead. and the great sleep begins.

Not the thunderous rendition of Verdi's Requiem but hushed, the Isle hosting a funeral for its visitor's final resting place, and the great sleep begins.

Arnold Böcklin 1827-1901

Arnold Böcklin, self portrait, 1873.

Arnold Böcklin, self portrait, 1873.

Karol Szynanowski 1992-1937


Szymanowski. Métopes - L'îsle des sirènes (The Isle of the Sirens)

The deadly Sirens, infamous for luring sailors to shipwreck their vessels on the rocks by their seductive singing is the subject matter of the first of Szymanowski's three Métopes.

The piano's barely perceptible opening is set to entrance from the start, a whispered call to a susceptible audience. As though through a flimsy gauze, a distant mirage obscures bird-like flutters, designed to excite the listener's curiosity and vibrate within the soul.

The Sirens up their game, ravishing the auditory senses. Hooked, the listener is spellbound within a trembling murmuration, his buzzing head affecting all rationale. The Sirens' initial coyness merges into sinister whilst still retaining magnetic seduction, their captive powerless to resist, quietly submitting to a watery demise.

Hector Berlioz 1803-1869

Portrait of Berlioz by Joseph Kriehuber in, 1845.

Portrait of Berlioz by Joseph Kriehuber in, 1845.

Berlioz. Nuits d'éte - L'Île inconnue (The Unknown Isle)

The last song in a set of six has a sense of urgency, a pressing on, a wish to persuade. It's a delightful end to Berlioz's Summer Nights.

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The song tells of a lover in the guise of a sailor, asking his beloved where he could take her in his boat fashioned from poetic materials: ivory, gold, and an angel's wing to carry them perhaps as far away as Java.

His beloved wants only to be taken to the faithful shore. But that, he says is almost unknown in the land of love. In other words, he can't promise never to stray, nevertheless he is still waiting for her to make a decision as the wind picks up ready for launch.

For more classical music inspired by summer click on the link.

Philip Glass 1937 -

Photograph of Philip Glass in 1993.

Photograph of Philip Glass in 1993.

Philip Glass. Glassworks - The Island

Glassworks, from minimalist composer Philip Glass, is one his most popular works, six short chamber pieces designed to hypnotise using repetitive motifs.

The third, The Island, undulates like water lapping around the shore. Just as an island is isolated, the music emits solitariness and loneliness, staring across the water to an unreachable destination out of sight as the music turns ever more in on itself before fading out.

Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then."

Philip Glass

John Ireland 1879-1962

Photograph of Ireland c1920.

Photograph of Ireland c1920.

John Ireland. Sarnia - An Island Sequence

Sarnia is the old Latin name for Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel off the south coast of Great Britain.

Despite it being a small island there are many ancient sites and is covered by megalithic stones called dolmen which have stimulated the imagination of the inhabitants. Folk stories abound, the most well-known being Le Trepied Dolmen at Le Catioroc.

And as it happens the first in Ireland's piano work Sarnia refers to that very place, where, according to legend, Friday nights were given over to a witches' sabbath. Dancing and singing along with warlocks and fairies, the witches confess evil deeds to the devil who takes the form of a black goat called Baal Berith.2

Darkly mysterious, the music creeps forth with just enough hint of a warning to the visitor via a toll in the bass, that you should be wary, for this place is reserved for those who may not necessarily be friendly. The middle section is more dance-like, gathering pace and increasing in volume until the opening returns with its undertones of a world in the half light.

The second piece in the suite, In a May Morning, brighter and rich in texture, is tinged with Scriabin, creating an impression of a new day, warming up to a day to be filled with quiet optimism.

Lastly, Song of the Springtides begins with ripples in the left hand before the folk tune plays in, sun perhaps dancing on the water. Swelling and surging, Ireland's spring tide sprays Ravel and Debussy in large measure into the face of the listener as they ride the waves.

For more classical music inspired by witches and sorcerers, click on the links.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918

Photograph of Debussy in 1908.

Photograph of Debussy in 1908.

Debussy. L'îsle joyeuse

If there were ever a piece of music that perfectly fits the title this is it.

It's packed full of exuberance, delighting in its own shimmering beauty as a dog frolics in the sea for the sheer joy of it. Washes of colour brush through the piece, highlights picked out within the impressionism Debussy was such a master of.

L'île joyeuse was inspired by the painting The Embarkation for Cythere by Watteau3 and has two main melodies, the Spanish dance at the start and the more expansive freer and heavily harmonised second.

Although the music appears to be free to flow as it pleases, Debussy in fact uses the sonata form frame to organise it, ending with one of the most thrilling flourishes of the piano repertoire.

Watteau. The Embarkation for Cythere


Alan Hovhaness 1911-2000


Alan Hovhaness. Achtamar

A short companion piece to Hovhaness's Lake Van Sonata, Achtamar celebrates an island in the middle of the lake. Originally in Armenia, the place of Hovhaness's birth, Achtamar is home to the 10th century Church of the Holy Cross.

The middle eastern influence is prevalent in the two brief movements. The tunes are simply defined against a spartan bass, which is almost in a speaking role adding commentary to the continuous melody. There is the Hovhaness favourite use of rapid repeated notes in the second and all is contained within a tight pitch range, hardly venturing into very low or high registers, sitting comfortably within the vocal range.

Desert Island Dreams

If you dream of living on a desert island why not read about some choices of classical music to bear in mind to take with you? Just click on the link.


1 Eero Tarasti - Semiotics of Classical Music


3 Allmusic

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on December 31, 2018:

Hi Flourish. We have different styles, that's all. You are very funny and perceptive about intentions of the protagonists in your playlists, but thank you for that!

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 30, 2018:

This was especially beautiful. I liked Berlioz in particular. Your descriptions are so vivid and bring the music to life in a way that I could not generate. You truly have an ear for this beautiful music. Very creative and moving.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on December 06, 2018:

Thank you Linda for your kind comments. The Szymanowski is certainly my own favourite. Sirens are definitely seductive!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on December 06, 2018:

Thank you Linda for your kind comments. The Szymanowski is certainly my own favourite. Sirens are definitely seductive!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 05, 2018:

You've shared some lovely music and descriptions once again, Frances. I especially like the piece about the Sirens. I think the bird-like flutters that you mention are beautiful.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on December 04, 2018:

I'm glad you enjoyed the article Chitrangada. There are some beautiful islands out there!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on December 04, 2018:

What a great combination of beautiful islands and the classical music inspired by them. Enjoyed going through your excellent article, pictures and the videos.

Thanks for sharing the excellent information about the songs.

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