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FEATURE | Were Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen the Mozart and Beethoven of 20th-Century Folk Rock?

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Since the death of Leonard Cohen in November 2016, there have been no shortage of commemorations, obituaries, and editorials written about the late singer-songwriter’s contribution to musical life in Canada and abroad. I recently attended Leonard Cohen celebrations at a Toronto synagogue where expert Seth Rogovoy, author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet and clergy explored the Jewish roots inherent in Cohen’s work, frequently alluding to another famous Jewish singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. While listening to these comparisons, my nerdy, musical brain couldn’t help but liken the relationship between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to that of another great duo: Mozart and Beethoven. A stretch, I know, but hear me out.

In many ways, the young Bob Dylan bore similarities to Mozart, as both composers displayed a sense of sprezzatura, or studied nonchalance. As a young man, Dylan’s genius was unfettered, effortless and prodigious, and Dylan could write masterpieces of folk music in a matter of minutes. Anyone who’s seen Amadeus remembers the description of how Mozart as a child genius could write sublime music on the first try. Mozart’s first biographer, Franz Niemtschek described,

“Mozart wrote everything with a facility and rapidity, which perhaps at first sight could appear as carelessness or haste; and while writing he never came to the klavier. His imagination presented the whole work, when it came to him, clearly and vividly. …. free and independent of all concern his spirit could soar in daring flight to the highest regions of art.” (Niemetschek, pp. 54-55, 1798)

Dylan’s first draft of one of his most enduring songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” also shows few crossings out in its first draft, written on a napkin:

(New York Times, June, 2015)
(New York Times, June, 2015)

Dylan’s greatest works came as a young man, when he was young and idealistic and less interested in being a brand ambassador for Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Cadillac, to name a few of his later career pursuits. While we can never know how Mozart’s music would have progressed had he lived past the age of thirty-five, one can hope his output would have maintained greater integrity than Bob Dylan’s Christmas album.

Beethoven, as opposed to Mozart, has always been painted as a composer who struggled and suffered for his art. Whereas Mozart composed symphonies in rapid succession, completing three of his greatest in one summer, Beethoven took years to complete his. Like Beethoven, Leonard Cohen could also take years to perfect a great song. Dylan and Cohen discussed their differing compositional speeds during a meeting Cohen described in Telegraph:

“[Bob Dylan] said, ‘I like this song you wrote called ‘Hallelujah’.’ In fact, he started doing it in concert. He said, ‘How long did that take you to write?’ And I said, ‘Oh, the best part of two years.’ He said, ‘Two years?’ Kinda shocked. And then we started talking about a song of his called ‘I and I’ from Infidels. I said, ‘How long did you take to write that?’ He said, ‘Ohh, 15 minutes.’ I almost fell off my chair. Bob just laughed.”

Reportedly, Cohen wasn’t being entirely truthful. “Hallelujah” took him five years to complete.

Beethoven and Mozart’s relationship was unfortunately short-lived. Despite Beethoven’s wishes to study composition with his great predecessor, Mozart was approaching death when he met the sixteen-year-old Beethoven. Mozart recognized Beethoven’s talent, saying Beethoven would one day “give the world something to talk about.” Beethoven’s admiration for Mozart spanned throughout his career, and he eventually composed variations on some of Mozart’s works.

Dylan and Cohen also admired one another, and Dylan at one point covered Cohen’s great hit, “Hallelujah,” echoing how Beethoven composed variations on works of Mozart. Dylan further displayed his admiration for Cohen, telling him, “As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero” (The New Yorker, Oct. 2016). Though Dylan believed Leonard Cohen was a great artist, he considered himself the greater of the two.

It is impossible to decide whether Mozart or Beethoven was a greater composer, much as, contrary to Bob Dylan’s opinion, it is difficult to choose between Cohen and Dylan. Many have spoken out about the Nobel Prize Committee’s recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. Opinion pieces in the BBC, Spectator magazine, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Gentleman’s Journal, and countless blogs have argued that Cohen would have been more deserving.

Bob Dylan believed it was Cohen’s synthesis of music and lyrics, rather than his poetry alone, which set Cohen’s work above others’. Dylan commented:

“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music… His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.” (The New Yorker, Oct. 2016)

Yet neither Dylan nor Cohen’s works without music have received the same level of recognition as their songs. Both artists’ stand-alone poetry has attracted composers, demonstrating their work’s inherent connections to music. The famous American composer John Corigliano recently reset Bob Dylan’s poetry in his song cycle, Mister Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2003).  In 2007, Philip Glass, one of the twentieth century’s most influential composers, composed Book of Longing: A Song Cycle based on the Poetry and Artwork of Leonard Cohen, based on a book of Cohen’s poetry and artworks.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen Click To Tweet

Unlike Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen had no interest in determining whether his work or Dylan’s work deserved greater acclaim. He told The New Yorker, “As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”

Cohen gets it right. Evaluations and opinions of works of art, particularly works by great artists, are superfluous. I personally could never choose between Mozart and Beethoven, as each of their outputs contain sublime music and deep expressions of humanity in ways that have touched me differently at various points of my life. I feel similarly about Cohen and Dylan. In my teens, I turned to Dylan, mounting his poster on the wall of my first undergraduate dorm room and quoting “Mister Tambourine Man” in my high school yearbook. Now in my twenties, I feel more affinity towards the graceful, spiritual Cohen. In 2017, his optimistic mantra feels more needed than ever: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

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Sara Schabas
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Sara Schabas

Sara Schabas is a soprano and writer born and bred in the heart of Toronto’s musical community. When she’s not singing opera, you can find her covering Carole King on the ukulele, biking through the Annex and advocating the merits of Puccini.
Sara Schabas
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