Schubert, Bach, Dowland - The Function of Music in Richard Power's "The Time of Our Singing"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Franz Schubert

3. Johann Sebastian Bach

4. John Dowland

5. Conclusion

6. Literature
6. 1 Primary Texts
6. 2 Secondary Texts

1. Introduction

“I can't pretend that anything I've ever experienced can compare to what black or mixed-race people confront on a daily basis in this country,” says Richard Powers, author of The Time of Our Singing.[1] Racism and belonging are the most important topics in his recent novel. Joseph and Jonah Strom, sons of David Strom, a Jewish German immigrant and his wife, Delia Daley, a black woman, grow up in the United States, a country in which they have to face the lives of social outcasts. Belonging to neither black, nor white, neither Christian, nor Jewish, neither German, nor American society, they are permanently confronted with the question: “Who are you, boys?”

Music is the only thing that holds the family together, that provides hope and confidence in an otherwise desperate situation. The Guardian calls music the “central metaphor of Power’s book”.[2]

The New Yorker even establishes a connection to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947) as a “ghostly thematic backdrop”.[3] Actually one could imagine a sort of contract between the singer Jonah and the devil. He develops and enhances his voice whilst racial hatred and uprisings are getting worse all around him. Jonah’s father is a scientist who really lives for science and is always busy exploring time – just like the father of Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist in Doktor Faustus, is a passionate scientist. Unlike Jonah, who actually is a gifted singer, Adrian needs the devil to become a better musician. As a price the latter is not allowed to love, which is the same with Jonah and, in fact, Joseph Strom. As descendants from two different races, and belonging to neihter, they are different from both and are not able to find a suitable partner. As a matter of fact they will not be able to procreate – like a “mule”, which is the very nickname Jonah gives to his brother Joseph.

As a trained singer who studied physics as well, it does not astonish which topics Powers chose.[4]

The novel abounds with mostly classical and Early music: Byrd, Bach, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, Händel, Dvořák, Mozart, Haydn, Verdi, Dowland, Mahler, Brahms, Scriabin, Grieg – to name only a few. But what did Powers want to express? He probably chose the pieces deliberately – what is behind them?

It is the aim of this paper to find that out. Since there are so many pieces and composers mentioned, a close examination of all of them would fill several hundred pages. For this reason the paper will confine itself to looking at Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach, and John Dowland, who thus form the three chapters of the main part. This is not a work of musical theory therefore the lyrics of the pieces are much more important than the music itself. After all Powers hardly mentions the music but in most cases the mere words. The Problem is that composer and poet are not the same person. The words for Schubert’s Winterreise were written not by Schubert but by a poet called Wilhelm Müller. But the words of the songs are closely connected to the music, hence to the composer. In fact the actual poet often remains anonymous. The paper will therefore treat the words – like Powers also does – as if the composer himself had written them.

The Time of Our Singing was published in 2003. Not much has been written about it since. Actually not much has been written about Richard Powers other works, apart from several newspaper articles, which can easily be found on the author’s homepage.[5]

2. Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert was born on the outskirts of Vienna in 1797. In 1807 he met the famous composer and contemporary of Mozart, Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825). In 1815 he became a teacher at a primary school but decided to work as freelance musician in 1818. He died in 1828.[6]

Schubert is most famous for his sets of lieder, such as Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, or Schwanengesang.

The first time Schubert is mentioned in the novel is on the very first page, when Joseph Strom, the I-narrator, recalls a scene in which his brother is singing. Already in this first scene, Joseph sees the Erl-King“hunched on my brother’s shoulder whispering a blessed death”.[7] This picture, this memory, returns from time to time.[8]

The Erl-King becomes the brothers’ standard song: “we’d done that piece so many times, it could have galloped along by itself after throwing both of us.”[9]

Jonah sings Schubert “the moment when the world first finds him out”, the night he is named “America’s next voice”, which is the same night Joseph realises “where his [Jonah’s] voice is headed”, what his life will lead to.[10] After that first important concert of his career Jonah sets out for his ride with the Erl-King – father and son humming the tunes.[11]

The Erl-King is a recurring motif throughout the novel. Jonah sings this Schubert version of Goethe’s “fake medieval ballad”[12] over and over again with Joseph accompanying him. They sing it at the semifinals of a national contest in Georgetown.[13] To understand the picture, which the narrator draws in these lines, one has to know the Erl-King – first of all Goethe’s text.

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;

Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,

Er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang Dein Gesicht? –

Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?

Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif? –

Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif. –

„Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!

Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;

Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,

Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.“

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,

Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht? –

Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig mein Kind;

In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. –

„Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?

Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;

Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn

Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.“

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort

Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort? –

Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:

Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –

„Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;

Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.“

Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an!

Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan! –

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,

Er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,

Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;

In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.[14]

Jonah sets out for a similar ride to the one the father is conducting with his son with his brother Joseph. Even the expressions remind of or are even taken from the ballad. At the beginning of the performance they “set out on our customary gallop.” The ride seems to be as of usual. But then something goes wrong – just like in the ballad. Joseph is led astray by something: “my body went sailing so far away”. Joseph has to leave his brother “galloping along in the dead of night”. They start a second time and the only thing Joseph is left to do is “racing the wild late night”. “The line galloped as it never had” whilst Jonah is now in the firm grip of the Erl-King – he “sang with death incarnate sitting on his shoulder” and finally they hit “unforgiving eternity” – which can only be a deathlike state. Joseph even states: “The more deadly music was, the better.”[15]

This ride makes Jonah’s untimely death a certainty.

On his degree recital Jonah sings Schubert again. He choses “Irrlicht” (will-o’-the-wisp) from the Winterreise.[16] In 1827 – one year before his death – Schubert composed his Winterreise, a set of twenty-four lieder based on the texts by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) written in 1822/23.[17] The poems are about a lonesome wanderer who had been left by his beloved and is now roaming a freezing cold and empty winter landscape longing for his own death.

The poems deeply touched Schubert hence his decision to set them to music, although he slightly changed the order and the words.[18] Until his death Schubert used wandering as a metaphor of human existence in his compositions.[19] The gloomy mood of the lieder – unusual for Schubert’s pieces – surprised his friends.[20]

In die tiefsten Felsengründe

Lockte mich ein Irrlicht hin:

Wie ich einen Ausgang finde,

Liegt nicht schwer mir in dem Sinn.

Bin gewohnt das irre Gehen,

's führt ja jeder Weg zum Ziel:

Unsre Freuden, unsre Leiden,

Alles eines Irrlichts Spiel!

Durch des Bergstroms trockne Rinnen

Wind' ich ruhig mich hinab –

Jeder Strom wird's Meer gewinnen,

Jedes Leiden auch ein Grab. [21]


[1] Powers, quoted from: Emma Brockes, “Magic Powers.” The Guardian (14th March, 2003).

[2] Brockes.

[3] Sven Birkerts, “Harmonic Convergence.” The New Yorker (1st January, 2003).

[4] Joseph Dewey, Understanding Richard Powers (Columbia, SC, 2002) p. 6-7.

[5] Have a look at:

[6] Cf. Biography on the homepage of the Schubert Institute,

[7] Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (London, 2003), p. 3. This is henceforth abbreviated TOS

[8] E.g. TOS, p. 213; 215.

[9] TOS, p. 308.

[10] TOS, p. 4.

[11] TOS, p. 8.

[12] TOS, p. 212.

[13] TOS, p. 211-213.

[14] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Der Erlkönig.“Das große deutsche Gedichtbuch, (Königstein/Ts., 1978), p. 247-248.

[15] TOS, p. 213.

[16] TOS, p. 194.

[17] Malte Korff, Franz Schubert (München, 2003), p. 149.

[18] Thrasybulos Georgiades, Schubert (Göttingen, 1967), p. 358-359.

[19] John Budde, Schuberts Liederzyklen (München, 2003), p. 66.

[20] Korff, p. 150-151.

[21] Wilhelm Müller, Irrlicht.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Schubert, Bach, Dowland - The Function of Music in Richard Power's "The Time of Our Singing"
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar )
Seminar: Literature and Music
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Schubert, Bach, Dowland, Function, Music, Richard, Power, Time, Singing, Seminar, Literature, Music
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Daniel Stock (Author), 2005, Schubert, Bach, Dowland - The Function of Music in Richard Power's "The Time of Our Singing", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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