cover image The Great Passion

The Great Passion

James Runcie. Bloomsbury, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63557-067-0

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. Stefan Silbermann, a former pupil of Bach’s, learns of the composer’s death in 1750, before Runcie flashes back to Silbermann and Bach’s time together. After Silbermann’s mother died when he was 13, he was sent by his father to Leipzig to study music; the elder Silbermann, who made and serviced church organs, believed that such an education would enhance his son’s ability to work for the family business. The other students bully Silbermann relentlessly, but his vocal talent attracts the attention of Bach, the school’s cantor, and Bach’s family offers the boy emotional support. The evolving relationship between teacher and student culminates in the composer’s best-known vocal piece, inspired in part by witnessing a gory execution. Runcie pulls off an intricate and accessible description of the innovative piece and its composition, which was designed to make the death of Jesus feel immediate, so that listeners of the “Passion” would understand “how people crucify Christ every day.” Runcie captures, as well as anyone could with words, how Bach realized his aim of making music accompanying lyrics about Christ’s suffering “as shocking and unpredictable as grief itself.” This is historical fiction of the highest order. (Mar.)