by Jochen Markhorst
I God will pardon me, that’s his job
He received his doctorate in law in 1825, and as a Jew he could never become a lawyer or a university professor. He writes unconcernedly but cynically that he regards his baptismal certificate as his “Eintrittsbillet zur europäischen Kultur, entrance ticket to European culture”. And religion, church and faith he mocks throughout his life, in his poems, conversations and personal writings. “Den Himmel überlassen wir den Engeln und den Spatzen, we leave heaven to the angels and the sparrows,” is one of the milder examples.
On his deathbed, ill and miserable, he still writes: “Am very miserable. Coughed terribly for twenty-four hours; I shall press charges against the good Lord, who acts so cruelly on me, at the Society for the Cruelty to Animals.” Heine leaves on record that he wants no religious fuss at his funeral, no rabbi, pastor or priest is allowed to speak, and he continues to mock until his death: “Dieu me pardonnera, c’est son metier – God will pardon me, that’s his job,” are, according to his friend Alfred Meißner, the last words of the German mockingbird in Paris. Not coincidentally also Nietzsche’s favourite poet.
With Dylan, religion does go a little deeper, though;
“I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.”
(Jeff Slate interview, Wall Street Journal, 19 December 2022)
Conversion is not the only similarity between the two greatest Jewish poets of recent centuries. On a level above, their status is very similar; Heine was the standard-bearer of nineteenth-century counterculture, both feared and respected and hated by the bourgeoisie, and his emigration to Paris, 1831, was reviled as a betrayal, similar to Dylan’s switch to electric rock music in 1965. But the main similarity, of course, is artistic fraternity, the similarities within the oeuvres of both giants.
Already unmistakable on a transcendent level; the irony, the ability to hide the weighty under lightness, the interweaving of “high art” with “low culture”, the sardonic outliers, the melancholy and casual humour – the congeniality is remarkable. And on a content level, coincidentally or not, we also see plenty of common ground. Like with the first verse of one of the highlights on Rough & Rowdy Ways (2022), in Dylan’s late masterpiece “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”,
I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars Been thinking it all over, and I thought it all through I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
… which takes every Heine fan to Neben mir wohnt Don Henriquez (“Don Henriquez lives next to me”):
Doch in stiller Abendstunde But in the quiet hours of the evening Sitzt er ganz allein daheime, He is all alone at home In den Händen die Gitarre, In his hands the guitar In der Seele süße Träume In his soul sweet dreams
Hereafter, Heine does take a different turn in this poem than Dylan does, destroying the romantic overtones with one of his famous “ironic pointes” (Quivering he touches the strings / Starting his improvising / Argh, his squeeking and scrapings / Torture me like caterwauling!), but this setting and this mood are strikingly similar.
To what extent Dylan leaves the romantic mood intact is open to debate. In Dylan’s song, at least, the suggestion of romance is many times more penetrating than in Heine’s, mainly thanks to the unfair advantage: the music. There are exceptionally many of Heine’s poems set to music, more than a hundred anyway, also and especially by the Big Guns (Schubert, Wolf, Schumann, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Brahms, Strauss, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Liszt – well, all of them, actually), but as it so happens, this Don Henriquez isn’t. And if Don Henriquez had been set to music at all, it is highly doubtful whether a Grieg or a Schubert would have chosen a similar deceptive loveliness as Dylan did for “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”.
The release of Rough And Rowdy Ways, 19 June 2020, has been greeted with exclusively positive to jubilant reactions, and much of the joy concerns the album’s immense richness, its many references and allusions, enriching aesthetic pleasure with something like intellectual satisfaction. After all, it sort of boosts the ego when you understand a pun, crack a code, recognise a quote, can place a paraphrase – and on that front, the artist Dylan meets his admirers more than ever. Whitman, Little Walter, Juvenalis, Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson, Caesar, Frankenstein and Charlie Poole… every song on the album strings allusions together. And one of the subtler ones is the chosen musical accompaniment to “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”: the waltz-like shuffle from Offenbach’s gondola song “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” (1881).
The find is presented by Jon Pareles in his New York Times review immediately on release date 19 June, upon which social media quickly spread the find across the planet, and after being parroted around thousands of times, I’ve Made Up My Mind = Offenbach’s barcarolle is by now considered musicological fact. It largely explains the song’s irresistible appeal, its delightfulness. “But my songs are standing on a strong foundation, and subliminally that’s what people are hearing,” Dylan says as early as 1997 in the interview with the same Jon Pareles, following the release of Time Out Of Mind.
“Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” is indeed firmly embedded in our cultural baggage. It is used in advertisements (Audi, Baileys, Fiat, and more), in films like Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) and, crushingly and heartbreakingly, in Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella (1997), even and especially in one of the Auschwitz scenes. Because, as the ad boys and filmmakers know, the simple lick, the sultry summer evening romanticism and the pleasant 6/8 meter have been steadily ingrained in us for over a hundred years now – Offenbach’s barcarolle is a strong foundation.
Baileys commercial – Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour:
To be continued. Next up I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You part 2: Wanted Man in Birmingham
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic