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The Great Passion

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Something is happening, though. In the depths of his loss, the Cantor is writing a new work: the Saint Matthew Passion, to be performed for the first time on Good Friday. As Stefan watches the work rehearsed, he realises he is witness to the creation of one of the most extraordinary pieces of music that has ever been written. I particularly enjoyed this title for two reasons. First, I was fascinated by the author's exploration of Bach's spirituality. I assume I'm like many people in thinking of Bach primarily as a composer in the abstract, a man who produced music and about whom I know little else. I'd connected Bach's music more to the liturgical calendar and his day-to-day work demands rather than to his faith. Runcie's Bach is spiritually driven, and for him spirit and music are a single entity. For perhaps we can only appreciate what it is to be alive by recognising what it means when that life is removed from us. We are ravaged by absence. The void opens around us…Then, afterwards, when life forces us to continue, and we resume what is left of our time on earth, we listen to music as survivors…We grow to understand that our wounds give life its richness…

Although I found the content of the novel interesting, I struggled with its style. Dialogue-heavy, it initially conveyed an appropriate sense of rushed urgency, but became tedious to read as it persisted and, I felt, served to dimish character development. I could also imagine that, like myself, many readers might struggle to make sense of many of the Latin phrases and German song titles that are not always translated, or inadequately so. Stefan is taken in by J.S. Bach and his family and he is provided guidance in keyboard, organ, composition and above all sacred vocals. He is a fine boy soprano with carrot red hair who is grieving, bullied and trying to find meaning in the world, himself and God. We are taken by the hand into the world of sacred music, Lutheran wisdom (and platitudes), platonic and romantic love, deep everyday spirituality and the roles of the artist, the student, the woman.In The Great Passion, James Runcie makes up for this historical vacuum with a bold imagining of the months leading up to the first performance of Bach’s masterpiece. Runcie’s narrator is Stefan Silbermann, a scion of the (real-life) German organ-building family. In 1750, Stefan, now in his late thirties, learns of the death of the Cantor, which leads him to reminisce about the year he spent as a student of the St Thomas Church in his early teens. At the time, still grieving following the death of his mother, bullied by the other schoolboys for his red hair, yet showing great promise as a singer and organist, Stefan is taken in by the cantor and his wife Anna Magdalena, and practically becomes a member of the Bach household. He witnesses at first hand the composer at his work, and unwittingly contributes to the creation of what would become known as the St Matthew Passion.

Leipzig, 1726. Eleven-year-old Stefan Silbermann, a humble organ-maker's son, has just lost his mother. Sent to Leipzig to train as a singer in the St Thomas Church choir, he struggles to stay afloat in a school where the teachers are as casually cruel as the students. The Cantor let the idea take hold. ‘An opening exordium. A funeral tombeau. Write this down, Monsieur Silbermann. Two choirs. The Old and New Testament.’ The Grand Passion's plot moves forward gradually, letting the reader sink into the moments the novel depicts—and while in some ways these are ordinary moments, they are also extraordinary moments. The novel takes place in 1727-28 in Leipzig where Johann Sebastian Bach is cantor (essentially music director, conductor, and composer all in one) at a cathedral school. After his mother's death, thirteen-year-old Stefan Silberman is sent to spend a year at the school—a year that will allow his father to mourn privately and is intended to "distract" Stefan from his loss. Life at the school is a misery until Stefan's singing voice draws Bach's attention. After that, life is still a misery in many ways, but Stefan now has a purpose: singing, learning to play the organ, and gradually becoming an extended part of the Bach family. Brilliant ... Readers will be enriched by this novel and its glimpse at genius' The Times, Historical Fiction of the Month Stefan received much good advice. Even with the first hint from the oboist of "I will not be threatened". But the Cantor, his kin, and his chorus helped the motherless down the lonely path.Sudden death was all too common. Maybe the pandemic gave us a clue to what it was like to live with mortality on a scale familiar to the 18th century. Bach lost both his parents before he was 10, and then his first wife. He eventually fathered 20 children – and buried 10. But the death of this particular little girl seems to have distilled all his experience of loss. According to Runcie’s novel, he poured it into the St Matthew Passion and his sorrow for that child powers the Passion’s extraordinary blend of human tragedy and the divine consolations of faith. This is Runcie’s starting point for the Bach who will bring the Man of Sorrows to musical life in the St Matthew Passion. We meet a warm ­family man, whose response to a bereaved child is to comfort him by universalising grief and turning to religion to do it. The story of music engaging a grieving people and pointing the way toward hope is particularly meaningful today when so many have been lost. What does it mean to be alive? How do we live with our grief? Can we find the “advancing light” when we are blinded by loss and anguish? How can love save us? The characters in the book grapple with these big questions. As do we.

In the midst of so much sorrow and loss, Bach is inspired to write a Good Friday cantata that will take listeners into the passion of Christ, putting them in the place of those who caused Jesus’ death and benefited from that act of love. The St. Matthew Passion is considered a masterpiece. Almost by accident, Bach, with the help of the librettist Picander, begins to compose a setting of the Passion based on Matthew 27 and 28. It would be unlike anything heard before: a musical version of the story which would compel congregations to engage with the death of Christ. I can't speak to the historical accuracy of this novel. I imagine there are sources that Runcie carefully explored, but clearly much of the novel's content is Runcie's creation. Is it "truth"? I don't know. But as an exploration of spirituality, musical inspiration, and coming of age, The Great Passion is remarkable. Bach’s family was enormous, and his genius is large-scale, too. In every genre, his melodies are driven by an unerring sense of the moment when some harmonic shift or new rhythmic pattern transforms everything into a kind of heartbreak that is also, inexplicably, consoling. To conjure him as a man, a writer needs to focus very sharply, and, whether in his bestselling Grantchester ­stories or award-winning documen­taries, Runcie is expert at focus. For his portrait of the great composer, he has chosen three refining filters. First, we see Bach only through the eyes of a young boy. Second, the plot concerns the making of only one of his many masterpieces. Finally, every­thing happens in a single year, 1726-27, in which Bach’s three-year-old daughter dies.We may travel through the valley of the shadow of death, but how we live is what matters, don’t you think? We have to make full use of the opportunities and talents that God has given us. Do not forget the Parable of the Talents. It commands us to work. A wise, refreshing novel, and a touching human story ... Runcie has an expert imagination' HILARY MANTEL

All the stars for this profoundly moving and lovely reflection on life, love, loss, and the beauty found in both music and silence. I love, love, love, LOVE this novel. I love it because it is beautifully written. It is such an incredible read. Amazing narrative style. I do recommend listening to Bach's St. Matthew's passion--either in German or English. You can find it easily online to stream. (Several different recordings are found on Spotify.)The torments of the world are nothing compared with the glory that God will reveal. Your suffering will reap glory. The music has to do more than support the language, Monsieur Silbermann. It must take it to a place it could not get to on its own. Runcie is brilliant at chronicling Bach’s mission to take the messiness of grief and love and turn them into something beautiful and sacred. Even readers as tone-deaf as I am will be enriched by this novel and its glimpse at genius The Times, Historical Fiction of the Month

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