Introduction of a young person to the world of Bach

A historical fiction that brings to life the kindness and genius of Johann Sebastian Bach

Classical music lovers will enjoy this read. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one will understand the depth of grief depicted.

Together, the two major themes of glorious sound and unbearable pain merge to create a heartfelt and moving narrative. Readers will be refreshed and renewed by this inspiring and faith-filled story set in Germany during the 1700s.

The mourning of a child

Heartstrings will be immediately drawn to the beginning of the book, where we find 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann grieving. An only child, he lost his mother. Stefan’s presumably grieving father sends his son to a distant school, St. Thomas in Leipzig, advising him not to dwell too much on the loss of his mother and to embrace a new environment where he can study. and learn.

St. Thomas’ Church, where Bach served as choirmaster, is the setting for James Runcie’s ‘The Great Passion’. (Christian Draghici/Shutterstock)

However, Stefan is haunted by her absence. With his distinctive mop of red hair, things are made worse by the bullying of his classmates. He feels unwelcome and unloved. His soul longs for comfort and a place of refuge. He wonders how he will survive in this place.

But Saint-Thomas is a place of religion and music. There’s singing and playing instruments, and young Stefan is in the choir. His spirit is high.

Author James Runcie’s graceful and lyrical text is a treat. Here’s a glimpse of Stefan soaking up a musical score with a row of other young backing vocalists:

“There were so many different entries, and it came in a rush of sound, as if the singers were eager to bring us the news of Christ’s resurrection. The prefect, Schmid, sang a tenor air accompanied by an oboe played with such beauty and such longing that I had a moment of hope, in which I imagined that nothing could harm me while this cantata lasted; not the fear of my new school, nor the loss of everything I had known and loved.

Bach’s benevolence

Stefan catches the eye of the school cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach. This new student has a beautiful singing voice. Bach saw so much promise in it that he quickly elevated it from choir to soloist.

Epoch Times Photo
Johann Sebastian Bach (61) in a portrait of Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas. Bach is holding a copy of the six-part canon BWV 1076.

Stefan’s life changes dramatically. As a solid disciplinarian, Bach literally forces the best of his young protected while introducing him to a musical world that envelops him in promise and joy.

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Bach’s autograph of the first movement of the first sonata for solo violin, BWV 1001. (Public domain)

Being singled out as a stellar soprano is the envy of her schoolmates, including David Stolle, the son of one of the region’s most famous bassists.

Their relationship seems doomed, marked by constant tough fights and little consolation for Stefan.

Under Bach’s benevolent but firm tutelage, Stefan’s musical prowess blossomed and grew bolder and bolder. In addition to singing, he began working as a copyist for the prolific Bach and his many musical works.

A saving gift for Stefan is when he is drawn into Bach’s immediate family and away from the cruelty of dorm life. Here he finds solace in Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, who becomes a surrogate mother figure, musical mentor and friend. Bach’s eldest daughter from his first marriage, Catharina, invites Stefan on butterfly-collecting excursions in the nearby lush forests.

Much of Bach’s psyche remains a mystery in the novel, but as oboist Gloditsch notes:

“He speaks in music. Always remember that about musicians. German is not their first language. The music is. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand what we are saying.

The more Stefan works with Bach, the more he appreciates the genius of the man. The more Stefan sees him with his large family, the more he appreciates the musician’s wisdom as a father. He is grateful to be in Bach’s presence and works hard to please him.

Then tragedy strikes when a member of Bach’s family dies. Confronted again with the horror of death, Stefan consoles himself in religion. Ultimately, he finds that beauty can arise from the deepest losses.

Building at Crescendo

As Easter 1727 approached, Bach vigorously embarked on a new work: The St. Matthew Passion, a sacred oratorio for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, complete with a libretto by the poet Picander. This monumental undertaking sets the 26th and 27th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew to music, interspersed with chorales and airs.

Readers will be drawn into the frenzy of its creation, the chaos for all involved, and then the glorious and deeply moving performance that uplifts everyone’s souls and calls for salvation for young Stefan.

In “The Great Passion”, Runcie has created an imaginative and absolutely compelling tour de force. Singing, playing and hearing Bach’s music will be greatly improved from this reading.

Epoch Times Photo
“The Great Passion” by James Runcie is the fictional account of a boy mourning his mother who comes under the wing of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Bloomsbury Publishing)

“The Great Passion”
By James Runcie
Bloomsbury Edition, March 15, 2022
Hardcover: 272 pages

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