A novel envisions what it would be like to study with Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s legendary perfectionism shines in the novel “The Great Passion,” as he takes a (fictional) choir student under his wing.   

"The Great Passion," by James Runcie, Bloomsbury, 262 pp.

What would it be like to study music with a legendary composer in his prime? The latest novel by author and filmmaker James Runcie, “The Great Passion,” deftly evokes the rigors and rewards of studying with Johann Sebastian Bach. Crafted with storytelling “both earnest and exuberant,” it’s a symphonic, contemplative pleasure.

Runcie is no stranger to tales well told. He’s the author of the “Grantchester Mysteries” series that inspired the hit British TV show. Nor is Runcie a stranger to Bach, having written a documentary as well as a radio and a stage play about the composer. 

“The Great Passion” opens in early 18th-century Germany. Shy, solitary Stefan Silbermann, grieving the recent death of his mother, is shunted off to school in faraway Leipzig by his well-meaning father, a tradesman who builds and tends church organs. Hoping the change will prod the reluctant 13-year-old from his gloom, the senior Silbermann urges his son to make the most of his budding musical talents at the school – Stefan sings and plays the harpsichord and organ – before bidding him farewell.

The bullying at St. Thomas’ school begins immediately, with jeering peers, severe administrators, and punishing instructors ensuring Stefan’s days are unbearable. It’s distressing stuff that may deter some readers, but the rewards of pressing on are many. 

Bach, as St. Thomas’ cantor, is responsible for composing the Sunday cantatas and rehearsing the choir boys. Boisterous, exacting, and impatient, the senior musician quickly notes the young newcomer’s talent. Not only does Bach take Stefan under his wing professionally, but the composer also offers him a place in his crowded, lively household after the boy flees the miserable school. Grateful, Stefan finds creative purpose – and a sense of home – as his days with Bach unfold.

From its earliest pages, “The Great Passion” vibrates with a deep love of music, including the fervor and full-bodied joy of the creative process. “Now build, keep going, I want a glorious chord at the end, keep going, louder,” Bach urges Stefan. It’s an enthusiasm that any fan of music, as either a listener or a performer, will recognize.

Runcie also skillfully depicts the teacher-pupil dynamic, with its urging-prodding-responding-refining-now-back-to-the-beginning-again rhythms. “Sometimes [Bach] sang along, at other moments, he called out over the top of the accompaniment, ‘Legato here,’ noticing every mistake, repairing any unsteadiness, ... insisting, above all, on a forward momentum.”

A highlight of the novel follows Bach and Stefan on a visit to tune and assess Saxony’s largest organ. As Bach pulls out stops and tests pedals, his playing is “like something weightless held in the air ... joyful and unaware.” Suspecting Stefan’s likely skills as the son of an accomplished organ maker, Bach humbly steps aside and asks the boy for his take on the massive instrument. Stefan, initially hesitant, dismisses his fear and delivers a quick, insightful appraisal. It’s a crackling scene that underscores both the composer’s talents and his generous encouragement, which enables Stefan’s abilities to shine. 

Unlike so much of today’s fiction (even when focused on the past), “The Great Passion” hums with an unabashed, lived-in faith: The Bible is quoted, prayers are delivered, and voices are raised in praise. But when tragedy strikes the Bach household, Runcie allows his characters to question, doubt, and decry their beliefs. “Sometimes your faith might waver,” affirms one character. “With music, the notes are always there.” 

The cycles of the liturgical calendar give shape to the family’s days. “I create sermons in music,” Bach explains about his relentless commitments; it’s a workload that threatens to overwhelm the singers, copyists, and instrumentalists in his orbit, particularly as his plans for Holy Week – the unveiling of the “St. Matthew Passion” – start to bloom. 

The collaboration behind this oratorio, often considered one of Bach’s greatest accomplishments, comes alive in the novel’s latter pages. Featuring two choruses, two orchestras, and arias aplenty, “St. Matthew Passion,” as Runcie ably illustrates, required countless rehearsals and precise musicianship. As a soloist, Stefan pushes himself to measure up to his teacher’s uncompromising and monumental score. 

Stefan’s progress as a musician, along with his steps out of grief and into confidence, grounds the story. “Maybe that is why you are here,” Bach’s kind, talented wife, Anna Magdalena, says to the boy early on. “To make you ready to offer the world something other than your own sadness.”

With deep feeling and wisdom, “The Great Passion” soars to its quiet finish, vividly portraying music’s ability to rouse, to heal, and to awaken wonder.

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