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Review: The Great Passion, by James Runcie
Bloomsbury, 2022. 272 pp. $28

Bad enough that thirteen-year-old Stefan Silbermann’s mother has just died. His father, a well-known organ maker, insists that the boy spend a year at music school far from home, in Leipzig, as part of training in the family business.

The year is 1726, and eighteenth-century Leipzig seems a place where people take their Lutheranism neat, forever thinking about death, expecting to suffer, and—among the strictest believers—ready to condemn others for vivacity. Stefan’s school, run by clerics, fits this self-denying mold. But Stefan, though a grieving, serious child, has more to him. The rector seems to want to beat whatever that is out of him—and his classmates, who already pick on the new boy, seize their chance to persecute him even further.

But the saving grace to this school is its choral music director, or cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach. He hears Stefan’s soprano, as yet unbroken, and sweeps him into his house, where the boy must practice music constantly but also has the chance to escape his anxieties and grief a few hours at a time. The cantor, though a hard man to please, understands something of what the boy is going through, since he himself lost his beloved first wife several years before.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann’s portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1748 ( courtesy Bach-Archiv, Leipzig via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Also, since the cantor writes a cantata every week, to be performed at Sunday services, Stefan learns to sing music he believes too difficult for him, and to play keyboard better than he’d ever dreamed possible. The downside, of course, is that the school bullies resent him all the more for being the cantor’s favorite, especially since he’s displaced one of his chief tormentors in that role.

Bach’s legendary large family figures here, including his second wife, Anna Magdalena, as sweet and sensitive as her husband is brusque and self-centered. She becomes a kind of surrogate mother for Stefan, though he knows he’s not part of the family. More importantly, there’s seventeen-year-old Catharina, Bach’s daughter by his late wife, with whom Stefan strikes up a close friendship, not least because they each have a lost a mother. As you might expect, he comes to feel something more for her.

The Great Passion has much to say about mourning and faith, life and death, and music as a medium to express feelings about them—as well as the joy that seems so fleeting. Runcie, whose father was Archbishop of Canterbury, knows these themes inside out. I can’t help wonder too whether Stefan’s sadistic, competitive schoolmates derive from models in English public schools.

People have wondered for centuries how Bach managed to write so much music. This book gives a hint. The man never stops thinking about music, and he permits nobody at home to be idle. One child or other is always playing an instrument. They’re used to this constant practice, but Stefan isn’t; if he’s not singing or playing the clavichord, he’s copying scores for the cantor.

I like the characterizations, not just of the principals, but, for instance, of Georg Philipp Telemann, who makes Bach look like a humble wallflower. I also like the kind oboist who takes an interest in Stefan and tries to shield him from the school’s brutalities. The description of this man typifies the narrative style:

The man was as long and as thin as one of his instruments. The buttons and fastenings on his spinach-green coat and jacket were the keys on the barrel of his body, although he seemed to take better care of his oboes than he did of his own health. When he leaned forward to light his pipe, he was so slender he looked like a human candle that was about to set fire to itself.

From time to time, Runcie uses his sharp prose to comment pithily on the human condition. Bach loves to sound off in impromptu sermons, a habit Anna Magdalena warns him about, but which often contain nuggets of wisdom. Stefan laments the human habit of summing up others in a phrase and never seeing past that capsule description, therefore never knowing another person, really. And the oboist urges Stefan to “take the music as quickly as you dare. There’s no point in playing a piece if it only needs to be obeyed.” I think that’s also true of writing; master the words, don’t let them master you.

The dreary, death-obsessed, stiff-necked Leipzigers who make others miserable, probably because they are themselves, are properly off-putting but likely true to time and place. The musicians, who share the same religious beliefs yet strive to create beauty in God’s service, come across vividly. Though I know nothing about choral music and have different ideas about religious faith, I enjoyed The Great Passion very much and highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.