Traversing the Via Dolorosa with Shostakovich, Vasks, and Schnittke

Different people grieve differently. Some busy themselves with busyness. More productively, some write. Some write music. Some listen to music that some have written as catharsis for their pain.

And some enjoy listening to such heart-rending music—even when not necessarily in distress. That would describe me. When grieving, I concurrently feel the composers’ agony. When I’m not, it’s as if I’m empathically sharing in their burdens (Galatians 6:2).

One of my favorite ECM New Series releases, Dolorosa features—as the title suggests—themes of death, sorrow, and lamentation. It includes one work each by Dmitri Shostakovich, Pēteris Vasks, and Alfred Schnittke—all from the former Soviet Union. The title of the release appears to be truncated from Vasks’ own “Musica Dolorosa”, with perhaps a nod to the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “sorrowful way”), Jesus’ route to crucifixion. I make these speculations since it is convention to use doloroso (“o” instead of “a” at the end) in musical direction.

Dolorosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolorosa – Shostakovich / Vasks / Schnittke
Dennis Russell Davies, cond.; Stuttgart Chamber Orch.

 

These three works for string orchestra are appropriately somber, though at times dramatic, adequately expressing the subjects’ range of emotions.

The disc begins with Rudolf Barshai’s (1967) adaptation of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. The composer himself approved of Barshai’s arrangement, agreeing to rename it Chamber Orchestra op. 110bis. I much prefer the orchestral version to the quartet, as it adds weightiness to the original, better conveying its inherent bleakness. Shostakovich dedicated the composition “[t]o the memory of the victims of fascism and war”. At the time the original quartet was written (summer 1960), the composer had succumbed to persistent pressures to join the communist party, causing great inner turmoil, according to musicologist Isaak Glikman, as per the accopanying liner notes. Apparently the composer’s dedication included himself as a victim.

At just under 25 minutes, this rendition is one of the longest. DRD conducts the second movement, Allegro molto, slower than all other versions I’ve heard (3:38 long), which I find more appropriate, given the inscription and the overall tenor of this arrangement.

The impetus for Vasks’ “Musica dolorosa” was the death of the composer’s sister Marta. Vasks’ grief evidences itself in the climactic section beginning at around 5:50 of the single movement piece. The pain conveyed becomes almost unbearable until about 8:00 when the discordance begins to subside, seguing into a dark melancholy. This subsequently gives rise to what seems to be a reluctant acceptance of this tragedy. As much as I like the Shostakovich, this is my favorite piece on the disc.

Closing the set is Yuri Bashmet’s orchestral arrangement of Schnittke’s String Trio (1985), rebranded Trio Sonata (1987). This work is the least somber of the three, for the Alban Berg Foundation commissioned the original string trio for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Berg’s birth. However, within a few weeks of the string trio’s premiere, the composer would suffer his first of many strokes, thus curtailing his activity for the remainder of his days. Of the piece, Gerard McBurney opines in the liner notes: “It is music which strongly suggests an elegiac farewell to the past, as though the composer knew he were facing impending and radical change…” Schnittke would die one year after this disc was released.

Listening to this recording can be cathartic, as it is for me many times. I suppose, though, that the listener’s experience would pale in comparison to the emotions felt by the composers at the time of writing—or shortly thereafter in the case of Schnittke’s revision by Bashmet.

Bob Dylan’s New Christian Themed Album

After releasing his first new material in quite a while with “Murder Most Foul”—a nearly 17 minute track about the assassination of JFK—Dylan subsequently announced a forthcoming full-length release. Now available, the album Rough and Rowdy Ways contains only new material written by him.

The way I interpret the record, Dylan has rekindled his Christian faith. Though there are what seem to be overt lyrics in this regard, there are other more opaque references.

The overt references include these from “Crossing the Rubicon” (for those unaware, this phrase is a metaphor for point of no return):

I feel the Holy Spirit inside
See the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s in the reach of
Every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible
It’s darkest ‘fore the dawn (Oh Lord)
I turned the key, I broke it off
And I crossed the Rubicon

Plus the following from “I Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”:

If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real, a love so true
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you

This whole song can be read as the songwriter rededicating his life to Jesus Christ. The lyrics can be found at AZLyrics (The line I hope the gods go easy on me I interpret as I hope men deeming themselves gods go easy on me.) And by scrolling to the bottom of the AZ link, you can find lyrics to the remaining pieces on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The album finds Dylan pondering his temporal life, his faith, his mortal end, the end of all things generally (which I think he believes is imminent), and immortality.

Starting from the beginning of the album, “I Contain Multitudes” finds the writer admitting he’s a man of contradictions. Aren’t we all, if we’re honest. This sets up two tracks in which Dylan narrates in the first person  as (A) a false prophet (“False Prophet”), though claiming he’s not (I ain’t no false prophet), and (B) as Satan describing how he’ll fashion the antichrist (“My Own Version of You”). While an initial reading of (A) I opened my heart up to the world and the world came in could be autobiographical, when interpreted in view of the whole, Dylan speaking from the perspective of a false prophet makes the best sense.

“My Own Version of You” has appropriately repulsive imagery to match the concealed ugliness of the subject—the yet to be revealed antichrist:

I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
I’m gonna create my own version of you

The following lines make his meaning clearer (see 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Revelation 13:11-18):

I’ll bring someone to life, someone for real
Someone who feels the way that I feel

That Dylan thinks the false Christ’s time is nigh may be gleaned by this line borrowed from Shakespeare: Well, it must be the winter of my discontent.

The sequencing of the songs appears to be quite on purpose. With the first one admitting his own contradictory nature, the second posing as the false prophet, the third as Satan fashioning the antichrist, the writer seems to be reflecting his own notion that the end times are near. With all this in mind, a rededication to Jesus at this juncture makes sense. Thus, the fourth track is “I Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”.

The fifth track, “Black Rider”, finds Dylan pondering death itself. At times he’s pushing death away (My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way / I don’t wanna fight, at least not today), other times he’s ready to give in:

Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how
If there ever was a time, then let it be now
Let me go through, open the door
My soul is distressed, my mind is at war

Ah, those contradictions.

After two tracks of what I think are ‘living in the world but not of the world’—“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Mother of Muses”—the songwriter begins “Crossing the Rubicon” with my favorite of the non-overt Christian lyrics:

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day
Of the most dangerous month of the year

This is most certainly a reference to Nisan 14 on the Jewish calendar—the first day of the Jewish Passover, corresponding to the day Jesus became the Paschal Lamb (Passover Lamb), according to John’s Gospel (and 1 Corinthians 5:7). That is, the day Christ was crucified. I think these lyrics signify Dylan’s (re)dedication to Christ. This doesn’t necessarily mean Dylan metaphorically “crossed the Rubicon”—gave his life to Christ—on Good Friday, though it could.

Each verse of this song ends with the words And I crossed the Rubicon. Surely “crossed” here is a double entendre, referring also to accepting the Cross of Christ. This is evident in the lyrics beginning the second verse:

Well, the Rubicon is a red river
Goin’ gently as she flows
Redder than your ruby lips
And the blood that flows from the rose

This “red river” must be the blood of Christ, redder than…the blood that flows from the rose.

The final track (excluding “Murder Most Foul”, which is placed on a disk by itself in the cd release) “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” makes the island a metaphor for the journey to paradise (‘Abraham’s bosom’) —the hereafter. This is my favorite piece both musically and lyrically.

Dylan frames it with US President William McKinley’s assassination. The piece begins:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doctor said, “McKinley, death is on the wall
‪Say it to me, if you got something to confess”

Then near the end of the song Dylan writes I heard the news, I heard your last request / Fly around, my pretty little Miss. This appears to be Dylan using the president’s wife’s words to her husband at his deathbed, she wishing to go with him, to which he reportedly replied: “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours.” However, perhaps more important to the song here are the accounts that either McKinley or his wife sang the lyrics to the Christian hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee”.

The closing chorus thematically ties it all together:

Key West is the place to be
‪If you’re looking for immortality
‪Stay on the road, follow the highway sign
‪Key West is fine and fair
‪If you lost your mind, you will find it there
‪Key West is on the horizon line

A fitting finale. Make up your mind, make the commitment, cross the Rubicon. Stay the course, follow the Spirit. You’ll reach Key West, immortality. It’s right there on the horizon. At least it’s on Dylan’s horizon.

[See the related Tangled Up in Quasi-Truth.]

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