Just Like an Opera

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Maybe it’s that we’re approaching 2013 and the Rite of Spring’s centennial year (and, even more close-at-hand, the opening night of the New York Philharmonic which includes the riotous work). But in listening to Tempest, Bob Dylan’s newest album which dropped last Tuesday, I can’t help but be reminded of Stravinsky.

Compared side-by-side to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s decidedly not the Dylan of yore (and oh, listen to that earnest '60s tenor drop into a gravely bass-baritone in the aughts!). Reviewing for the Telegraph, Neil McCormick hits the nail on the head when he writes, “[a]t 71-years-old Dylan is still striking out into strange new places rather than revisiting his past.”

And yet there’s something still vaguely neoclassical about Tempest, the twang of “Positively 4th Street,” the wordplay of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” reminding us of Dylan’s firebrand days when his songs—steeped in literary and political traditions—were battle hymns of the midcentury youth in revolt. As a man who is constantly reinventing himself (remember those born-again days, or 2009’s fireside Christmas album?), Dylan continues to seek out uncharted musical territory, moving in patterns not unlike Stravinsky while still occasionally looking to influences of the past in order to change the musical present.

Unavoidable, too, is Dylan's past name-checking of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Not only did Dylan emphasize text but he's dealt in revolutionary concepts akin to Beethoven's "Eroica” Symphony, "Emperor" Concerto and Fidelio. An affinity for American folk music? That comes from the lines and likes of Ives and Dvorak.

“I was going to be in the classical music field and I imagine it's going right along,” Dylan told an Austin reporter in 1966, shortly before announcing that God was a woman. “I'll get there one of these records.” But really, Dylan’s records over the years have as legitimate a place in the American classical canon as they do in the catalogs of rock and folk. His songs are gems of storytelling, tapping into social unrest, fighting against the status quo, and simultaneously reflecting our socio-cultural climes in a way that reflects the greats before him: Verdi’s Nabucco and Un Ballo in Maschera, Mozart’s trio of operas written with Da Ponte, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, or Menotti’s The Consul, for starters.

Dylan may still be coursing towards an inevitable Deutsche-Grammophon release, following in the footsteps of Sting and Tori Amos (whose newest album, Gold Dust, debuts on the yellow label Oct. 1). But ironically, it took another composer to get him to the quote-unquote “standard” categorization when John Corigliano set seven of his songs for soprano and orchestra in 2003. Written for Sylvia McNair with the one request being that he set American texts, Corigliano was temporarily at a loss for a libretto. Corigliano had previously set the works of Dylan Thomas, a poet who was also hugely influential for Dylan (who has used the pseudonym “Robert Milkwood Thomas”). Perhaps that’s what turned him to another Dylan.

“I had always heard, by reputation, of the high regard accorded the folk-ballad singer/songwriter Bob Dylan,” Corigliano wrote in his composer’s note for the subsequent Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. “But I was so engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world that I had never heard his songs.”

Yet the fit was bespoke. Dylan’s text, in Corigliano’s words, was “every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard,” and while the songs he set—including Forever Young, Chimes of Freedom, All Along the Watchtower, and the titular Mr. Tambourine Man—bear nothing in common with the familiar melodies, they offer different contexts and insight into the words that are as integral to Dylan as his music.

Perhaps we’ll never hear a Dylan opera (composer Thomas Adès has also written a work called The Tempest but nothing about it  resembles "Roll on John" or "Duquesne Whistle"). But perhaps we don’t need that. There's an immediacy from his artful, if not downright, art songs. After all, Beethoven maintained a radical, revolutionary status in the vocal canon with only one opera to his name.