The Great Passion by James Runcie

The Great Passion might sound like a romantic novel, but the Passion is a piece of music – Bach’s St Matthew Passion, first performed on Good Friday 1727.   Runcie tells the story of its composition through the eyes of Stefan Silbermann, a boy soprano who sang in the first performance.  Stefan’s experiences as a lonely, bullied 11-year-old at the St Thomas Church choir school in Leipzig are the focus of the early chapters.

Stefan is rescued from the school dormitories when he is taken into the home of the ‘Cantor’ of the church, Johann Sebastian Bach. He is the musical director and a composer at the height of his creative powers.  Bach trains Stefan personally to become one of his soloists in the cantatas, masses and other church music which he composes and performs on a weekly basis.

Runcie brings Johann Sebastian Bach powerfully to life – his energy, his ability to pour out music of outstanding quality and the inevitable demands he makes on all his performers. 

Bach is also a kind and loving paterfamilias, head of a large family which includes 5 children by his first wife, who died young, and a growing brood by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. She looks after Stefan and brings him into their family life.   A skilled musician and talented soprano herself, she guides his music practices, teaching not only the notes but also the all-important interpretation. 

One of the joys of this book is Runcie’s illuminating descriptions of how music is made and performed.  Very few writers do this as well as he does.  In this quote, Bach answers the question, “How do you know where to start?”

“Plunge in.  Early decisions can be made quickly. Where are we in the church year?  Write music for that feast.  There are epistles and gospels.  You read them and choose your text. Will it be a lament or a celebration?  Major or minor?  You celebrate the highest bliss with a soprano and the lowest depths with a bass.  If you are stuck, then all you have to remember is that trumpets are for joy, violins can be replete with sorrow, the oboe da caccia is wonderful for plaintive longing and the wonders of God.”

Stefan’s development as a singer is charted in detail – his doubts and his achievements – until the moment when Bach selects him to be a soloist in the première of the St Matthew Passion. The final chapters describe the composition, rehearsals and the performance.  Bach produces mountains of manuscript paper, at very short notice, from which all the various parts have to be copied by hand.  Stefan and every other available person are drafted in for this job.  During the frenzied rehearsals, Bach shouts so much that his wife has to intervene, “You cannot be so fierce with them, mein Schatz. I don’t know why you feel you have to shout. … Sometimes you just have to let things rest. The yeast has to rise for the bread to bake.”

I have sung in choirs myself and I think this exactly describes the process by which musicians learn a new work. It cannot be forced into them. Bach sometimes needed his wife to remind him! They also need time, which Bach often did not give them. Many of his scores were produced at the last minute. So it is a lasting tribute to the performers, as well as the composer, that his works were so successful.

 The performance of the St Matthew Passion is a fitting climax to the book, though there is a prologue which recalls Stefan’s friendship with Bach’s daughter Catharina.  The women in this story have a strong influence but little power outside their home.  Anna Magdalena, for example, was not allowed to sing in the church choir; only boys could perform the soprano roles. 

There is also a detailed, horrific account of a public execution which local citizens regarded as a good day out and even children like Stefan were expected to attend.

This book is a triumphant achievement by James Runcie.  It can be enjoyed by anyone who likes a powerful story with well-drawn characters.  It is written in an engaging style and can be enjoyed by all keen readers, especially those with a taste for history.  My husband and I have very different reading tastes but we both loved this book. 

Reviewed by a library member.