Reviews of The Great Passion by James Runcie

The Great Passion

by James Runcie

The Great Passion by James Runcie X
The Great Passion by James Runcie
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  • Published:
    Mar 2022, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Book Summary

From acclaimed bestselling author James Runcie, a meditation on grief and music, told through the story of Bach's writing of the St. Matthew Passion.

In 1727, Stefan Silbermann is a grief-stricken thirteen-year-old, struggling with the death of his mother and his removal to a school in distant Leipzig. Despite his father's insistence that he try not to think of his mother too much, Stefan is haunted by her absence, and, to make matters worse, he's bullied by his new classmates. But when the school's cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, takes notice of his new pupil's beautiful singing voice and draws him from the choir to be a soloist, Stefan's life is permanently changed.

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.

Joyous, revelatory, and deeply moving, The Great Passion is an imaginative tour de force that tells the story of what it was like to sing, play, and hear Bach's music for the very first time.

1

There are gaps of time into which we sometimes fall, when the pattern of our days is suspended. It happens when there is a birth or a death, an arrival or a departure, the moments either side of it becoming forms of descent and recovery, when we do not know quite what to do or how long this unexpected bewilderment will last.

In general, I prefer not to talk of those years, now that my hair is thinned and grey, but once people discover how well I knew the family, they question what it must have been like to be amongst the first to sing Bach's music. I am unmarried and live without children and it's often the only subject they ever want to ask me about. My present occupation or state of health is of little concern. It's as if, as soon as my voice broke, my life ceased to be of interest.

I had grown tired of telling people but then, when the news came of his death, I found that I wanted to speak of little else. I tried to remember, once again, everything the Cantor had taught me:...

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As someone whose primary occupation was to set biblical texts to music, Bach's life revolved around the Lutheran Church. But Runcie goes beyond historical necessity to embed quiet religious wisdom in certain passages, particularly those concerning grief. While some are specific to Christian theology, most of these sections are more generic, applicable to any faith. I found this aspect to be moving, and a major highlight of the narrative. The Great Passion is an exceptionally well-written historical novel...continued

Full Review Members Only (700 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

BookPage
A beautiful coming-of-age novel.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The story is rich in its descriptions of music, devotion to God, and the daily hardships of 18th-century life...A delightful novel filled with warmth, music, and an obvious love of Bach.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Runcie, best known for his empathic Grantchester mystery series, displays the same gifts for characterization in this account of Johann Sebastian Bach's composition of the 'St Matthew Passion' in 1727...This is historical fiction of the highest order.

Author Blurb Hilary Mantel
This wise, refreshing novel takes us to the heart of Bach's life and work. James Runcie's expert imagination makes his picture of Leipzig specific and convincing, and behind the music's echo lies a touching human story. It offers a glimpse into a world more faithful and attentive than our own, but not alien to us: 'we listen to music as survivors,' the great Cantor says.

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Beyond the Book

The Evolution of the Pipe Organ

Large pipe organThe 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.

It's believed that the earliest iteration of the organ was ...

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