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The Great Passion: James Runcie

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It can’t be a sombre reflection on something that happened long ago. We need agitation, conflict. Perhaps we can even imagine the past and the present speaking to each other: what it meant to those first witnesses to the Passion of our Lord, and what it means to us now: our truth and their truth, how people crucify Christ every day.’ The protagonist of James Runcie's novel, The Great Passion, is an organist and organ builder. The pipe organ has been referred to as the "king of musical instruments" due to its size, complexity and power. Though its structure is similar to that of a piano, it has not one keyboard but as many as seven, plus a pedalboard played with the feet, and sometimes hundreds of "stops" on the console that are manually pulled opened or pushed closed during a piece to add musical effects (e.g., producing a buzzy tone or one that sounds like a bell). A single organ can be comprised of thousands of pipes, and the organ has the largest and oldest repertoire of any instrument in Western music. 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. The Great Passion is a wonderfully rich, audacious and, to me, surprising novel; surprising because all I have previously read of James Runcie’s work are his Granchester detective novels... On the evidence of these books, I would never have expected anything on the scale and magnificence of The Great Passion…This is a delightful novel, also one which reveals a Germany foreign or, I would think, unknown to most of us. It is a novel which deserves to last and will surely do so. It is surely James Runcie’s masterwork, a novel written with love and understanding. Allan Massie: The Scotsman

The Great Passion - Kindle edition by Runcie, James The Great Passion - Kindle edition by Runcie, James

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 Over the course of almost a year, Stefan will fall in love, engage in rivalry with Stolle for the soprano parts in Bach’s chorales, and learn to stand up for himself with the help of a kind oboist. He will also take part in the debut performance of Bach’s Passion chorale. The kindly, brilliant Bach can seem almost a madman in his demands on his singers, but the sublime result is the climax of the book.

So, I thought this was good but not perfect. I think you need to have an interest in music, including in the details of performance, and in the history of religious thought; I do (especially in the former); I enjoyed the book and I can recommend it.

The Great Passion’ Review: In Rehearsal With Bach - WSJ ‘The Great Passion’ Review: In Rehearsal With Bach - WSJ

Set in Leipzig in 1726, it is written as the memoir of Stefan Silberman, an 11-year-old chorister who is studying music at St Thomas’s choir school and encounters Johann Sebastian Bach as “The Cantor”. Stefan is talented, but traumatised by the recent death of his mother, and he is cruelly bullied. 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. We have to remember that the reverse is true. We are living as long as we are dying. We should not continue in dread. No one can thrive in the shadows. But where Runcie really triumphs is in his depiction of music. Writing about music is notoriously difficult – “like dancing about architecture”, to use a much-bandied phrase. Yet, in language which largely eschews technical terms, Runcie still manages to describe several of Bach’s works uncannily well, not least the Great Passion of the title. He also expresses the excitement of a first performance, the tension of the musicians, the expectations of the audience and that sense of satisfaction and release following a successful concert which performers know very well.I’ll tell you a secret, Monsieur Silbermann. Everyone, no matter who they are in life, feels alone. We are on our own and we are all afraid.’ 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. As I read this deeply affecting and affective novel I was comforted, I was moved, my heart leapt with joy, tears often streamed down my cheeks and I cherished my faith, my loves and the entirety of my life experiences. This is a book that resonated deeply with my own soul strings and a novel that I will forever cherish. Over the course of the next several months, and under Bach's careful tutelage, Stefan's musical skill progresses, and he is allowed to work as a copyist for Bach's many musical works. But mainly, drawn into Bach's family life and away from the cruelty in the dorms and the lonely hours of his mourning, Stefan begins to feel at home. When another tragedy strikes, this time in the Bach family, Stefan bears witness to the depths of grief, the horrors of death, the solace of religion, and the beauty that can spring from even the most profound losses. Could be my Covid brain right now but this just wasn’t The Great Passion for me. I was intrigued enough to take it to the end but relieved when it was over. I think I would have been more excited for a flogging rather than the slogging.

The Great Passion, by James Runcie - The Scotsman Book review: The Great Passion, by James Runcie - The Scotsman

The other students, jealous of his favored treatment and private tutelage, bully him. Bach takes him into his home where his wife and he are kind. Anna, who is very kind and loving and reminds him of his own mother. Under Bach’s teaching, Stefan’s musical ability and skill improve greatly. And Bach always uses music as a metaphor for God’s love and grace; beautiful lessons abound throughout the book. Bach’s 3 year old daughter died of a fever and Bach thinks it best for Stefan to return to school so his family can grieve alone. Stefan blames himself since he had the fever first and may have infected little Etta.For a time, Stefan lives with Bach’s family, the house full of activity, music focused, but also joyful. Until the death of their infant daughter. Bach had lost his first, beloved wife, and although he happily found love again, the pain remains. Now his wife is grieving. Stefan’s rival’s mother also dies. The awareness of life’s brevity and pain pervades their lives. 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. The Daughters of Zion from the Song of Songs meet the new Christian believers,’ said Picander. ‘We use the chorus in the same way the Greeks did. They can choose to take part, or they can step aside. They act and they commentate. They express their pity, their anger, their fear and their sorrow.’

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