In the 18th century, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach served as Cantor at the St. Thomas boarding school and church in Leipzig, Germany. His duties were those of what today we consider is the work of a music and choir director, but back then, they also included composing new work, specifically, a cantata to be sung every Sunday in the church before the sermon. The school boys formed the choir that sang it.
Author James Runcie imagines a year in the life of one of those boys in his musically rich novel The Great Passion. That boy is Stefan Silbermann. As the book opens, Stefan is middle-aged, operating a successful workshop that makes organs. He complains that no one is ever interested in his career or his health when they meet him. They’d rather hear about the year he spent as a school boy at St. Thomas.
You can feel how tired he’s become over it, imagining how he’d be sharing an accomplishment in his work, then have the listener lean in and say, yes, but I know you studied with Johann Sebastian Bach at St. Thomas. Weren’t you among the first to sing Bach’s music? What was it like?
He tells us he’s received news of Bach’s death, and now he cannot think of anything else. He nostalgically turns his thoughts back to that time that seems to have defined his life. He begins by remembering the week after Easter in 1726, when he was 13 years old, struggling over the death of his mother. His father sent him to a new school, St. Thomas in Leipzig. While grief-stricken and lonely, he suffers even more being victimized by bullies. These are painful scenes that result in Stefan always being in trouble — not by his own fault but by the school’s failure to recognize the truth behind his circumstances, of the bullies setting him up.
Here is where the story and Stefan’s fate turn. The Cantor, recognizing Stefan’s beautiful soprano voice and the desperation he suffers in the dormitory, invites Stefan to live with his family.
Constant music-making fills the house with Bach’s many children and wife playing different instruments and singing, while their father and husband, an enthusiastic workaholic, encourages them. Stefan falls under his rigorous training, and he becomes the maestro’s most favored soloist, the chosen one drawn from the St. Thomas choir.
Mr. Runcie’s execution of the Cantor’s character is so vivid you can hear Bach shouting and singing and beating time and commanding — a rapid-fire, distinctive genius at work, his words flowing and roaring across the pages in what are the best scenes in the book, whether he’s interacting with Stefan or his children or musicians from town. Those who know the language of music will thrill in the detail, as in this rehearsal of the St. Matthew Passion, when Bach instructs the musicians.
Remember, gentlemen, we open with a dance rhythm. E minor. 12/8 time. A pastorale. We need forward momentum right from the start. Out you come, woodwind. Legato in the strings. Articulation in the flutes. Let it flow. Lovely. Crisper. Lighter. Make it urgent. Keep together!
It’s not all music all the time. There’s the tragic death of one of Bach’s children and the grieving that follows. There’s also Stefan’s love for Bach’s coquettish oldest daughter, and when a promising poet arrives to write librettos, Stefan has a rival for her attention. These life moments add ballast to Bach’s demanding tutelage, and the result is an altogether very satisfying narrative that in the end exquisitely imagines the answer to the question of what it was like to be with Bach as he created his extraordinary compositions, especially his famous St. Matthew Passion, first performed April 1727 on Good Friday. This is deeply felt and enlightening historical fiction.
James Runcie, by the way, is best known for his Sidney Chambers Mysteries, which have been turned into the popular PBS Grantchester series on MASTERPIECE. I’ve not read the mysteries, but I’m a big fan of the TV series. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.