The Great Passion
By James Runcie
Bloomsbury, 260 pp., $28
Review by Christine Havens
In his sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, the rector of my church referred to Bach’s writing of St. Matthew’s Passion, in particular his breaking of tradition in having “the whole chorus sing Judas’s guilty question, ‘Is it I, Lord?,’” rather than choosing a single voice, an acknowledgment that we’re all guilty. At that time, I was about halfway through James Runcie’s new novel, The Great Passion, and in some suspense about the circumstances of the oratorio’s composition. My knowledge of Bach extends about as far as recognizing his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the latest Dr. Strange movie. I felt a bit miffed — I hate spoilers.
I’m a bit tongue-in-check here. What I really felt was a sense of pleasure at the interconnectedness of music, literature, and faith. You never know where the sparks of inspiration are going to come from. Finding them gives me joy, and Runcie’s portrayal of Bach as a person who not only keeps himself open to those moments but also encourages his students to do so gives this novel its heart and soul.
In a recent interview for the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, Runcie talks about the paradox of Bach’s serious, mathematical mind against his enormous capacity for improvisation as being part of his 20-year fascination with Bach. The composer’s contemporaries asked, “How can he be both serious and playful?” Many who appreciate Bach still ask this question. Runcie demonstrates in this deftly written story that these aren’t in opposition to each other, even in 18th-century Leipzig, a staunchly Lutheran culture that determines a person’s value and relationship to God through work.
The Great Passion started life as a play (one can still listen to it on BBC Radio). In his own flexible creativity, Runcie decided to turn it into a novel, playing with various points of view, as he tells it, until finally choosing the perspective of a choirboy, Stefan Silbermann. The young man becomes a favorite student of the Cantor (Bach’s title at St. Thomas’s School). He observes the Bach family close at hand through the lens of new encounter, innocence, and grief, as Silbermann had recently lost his mother. Runcie uses the character’s memories to eulogize the composer.
Through Silbermann’s memoir, framed within the circumstance of Bach’s death in 1750, Runcie crafts an oratorio-style narrative — using the voices of those Silbermann encounters in his time with the Cantor. The voices include those of Anna Magdalena, the composer’s second wife; Paul Stolle, a renowned bass singer; Catharina, Bach’s oldest daughter; and Picander, Bach’s librettist. The sparks fly as the composer’s passion for his work and for God reach a place where “seriousness can be joyful,” as Runcie says in the festival interview.
The Great Passion is a story of steadfast passion. Runcie’s words connect us to Bach’s music — sparks of a faith in God, whose Passion knows no bounds.
Christine Havens is a poet and writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and on Mockingbird Ministry’s blog, mbird.com.