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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 t 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.


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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 t 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.

30 review for The Great Passion

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jaidee

    5 "transcendent, breathtaking, astonishing" stars !! Thank you to Netgalley, the author and Bloomsbury USA for an e-copy of this novel. I am providing my honest review. This will be released March 2022. As you read my review I encourage you to listen to excerpts from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. Here are some excerpts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxNQl... I am hopeful that this little review will encourage some of you to pick up this masterpiece historical fiction. This is the story of a yea 5 "transcendent, breathtaking, astonishing" stars !! Thank you to Netgalley, the author and Bloomsbury USA for an e-copy of this novel. I am providing my honest review. This will be released March 2022. As you read my review I encourage you to listen to excerpts from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. Here are some excerpts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxNQl... I am hopeful that this little review will encourage some of you to pick up this masterpiece historical fiction. This is the story of a year (1727) in Stefan Silberman's life where a young boy on the cusp on manhood is sent to study music in Leipzig at a boys' music school after the death of his mother as his father runs a prominent organ making enterprise in a much smaller town. Stefan is taken in by J.S. Bach and his family and he is provided guidance in keyboard, organ, composition and above all sacred vocals. He is a fine boy soprano with carrot red hair who is grieving, bullied and trying to find meaning in the world, himself and God. We are taken by the hand into the world of sacred music, Lutheran wisdom (and platitudes), platonic and romantic love, deep everyday spirituality and the roles of the artist, the student, the woman. This is a beautifully written, wise, humorous and very deep book on both the frailties and strength of the human spirit during 18th century Germany. We meet silly pastors and even sillier opera singers. We meet not only JS Bach but his second wife and children. We are amused by Telemann and Picander. Most of all we fall in love with Stefan and his struggles as he masters not only difficult vocal lines but his grief, his heart and how all this brings him closer to nature, to love, and to God. As I read this deeply affecting and affective novel I was comforted, I was moved, my heart leapt with joy, tears often streamed down my cheeks and I cherished my faith, my loves and the entirety of my life experiences. This is a book that resonated deeply with my own soul strings and a novel that I will forever cherish. I leave you with a quote made by a humble oboist and a wisdom that he shares with young Stefan "I wonder perhaps, if silence is a kind of home. We have it before we are born and after we have died. it is there before the music begins and after it has ended. We should always recognize its power before we interrupt it..."

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    This is a powerful read IF you are in the right frame of mind AND you don’t mind a story that drags in places. Its the early 18th century. Stefan, a 13 year old boy, has lost his mother. He has been sent to school in Leipzig by his father. His shocking red hair has made him fair game to bullying. the cantor of the school, Johann Sebastian Bach, takes notice of his talent as a soloist and invites Stefan to stay with him and his family and tutor him. Music for this clan and community is such a balm This is a powerful read IF you are in the right frame of mind AND you don’t mind a story that drags in places. Its the early 18th century. Stefan, a 13 year old boy, has lost his mother. He has been sent to school in Leipzig by his father. His shocking red hair has made him fair game to bullying. the cantor of the school, Johann Sebastian Bach, takes notice of his talent as a soloist and invites Stefan to stay with him and his family and tutor him. Music for this clan and community is such a balm for the heart and soul. For the joyous periods as well as the the darker and grievous ones. It is a beautifully written but I just found it to move too slowly at times which was the natural rhythm of it. Could be my Covid brain right now but this just wasn’t The Great Passion for me. I was intrigued enough to take it to the end but relieved when it was over. I think I would have been more excited for a flogging rather than the slogging. 3.5⭐️

  3. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    This was a beautiful story…. You don’t need to know anything about Johann Sebastian Bach to enjoy this. I am now going to go listen to The Great Passion on YouTube. I am going to leave here Jaidee’s beautiful review that enticed me to read this… Thank you Jaidee! https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... Also thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury USA for the ARC! This was a beautiful story…. You don’t need to know anything about Johann Sebastian Bach to enjoy this. I am now going to go listen to The Great Passion on YouTube. I am going to leave here Jaidee’s beautiful review that enticed me to read this… Thank you Jaidee! https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... Also thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury USA for the ARC!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    The Great Passion beautifully imagines a story behind Bach’s writing of the St. Matthew Passion. It explores grief and music, and how music helps to cope with grief - in this case resulting in a masterpiece of musical composition. In 1727, after the passing of his mother, thirteen-year-old Stefan Silbermann is sent by his father to Leipzig to sing and learn the organ and work with proper musicians. At school, Stefan continues to be grief-stricken. He is homesick and with his red hair he is a tar The Great Passion beautifully imagines a story behind Bach’s writing of the St. Matthew Passion. It explores grief and music, and how music helps to cope with grief - in this case resulting in a masterpiece of musical composition. In 1727, after the passing of his mother, thirteen-year-old Stefan Silbermann is sent by his father to Leipzig to sing and learn the organ and work with proper musicians. At school, Stefan continues to be grief-stricken. He is homesick and with his red hair he is a target of teasing. Later with his angelic voice and favoritism shown by the school’s cantor, John Sebastian Bach, Stefan becomes also a target of bullying. Bach’s family takes Stefan under their wing. They show him love which he knew from his mother, but was missing from his father. No matter how crowded Bach’s house is, there is always room for love and showing kindness and charity. The love of Bach’s family shines throughout this story. As they prepare for the performance of the Passion, the true meaning of passion comes touchingly through the story. When a tragedy strikes the Bach’s family, Stefan witnesses someone else’s grief and the solace of religion and music. Stefan is told that no matter how deep the grief is, the suffering is not to dwell on it, but to learn and grow from it. You draw a moral lesson from the tragedy, and even when you morn, you still need to carry on with your life. Being an example for all to see is exactly what Passion is about. Deeply moving characters bring depth and wisdom as they question the greatest mystery – the life itself. John Sebastian Bach, through the eyes of the children, isn’t always easy to live with, but the children know that they are loved, and that’s the best legacy to leave your children. Beautiful exploration of grief and love as a young boy gifted with an extraordinary singing voice, deeply feels the loss of his mother. He sees the world without his mother “so much more raw, exposed and frightening, with so much less protection and solace from the fearful enormities of what lay ahead.” He misses his mother’s vivacity, a taste for adventure and surprise. But under the tutelage of Bach, he learns to be resilient. The Great Passion is a finely crafted mystery of life itself and how one can be transformed through grief, music and love. With profound exploration of characters, bringing remarkably authentic and compelling depiction of musically talented family; and how their music transforms not only them, but also the others, by giving people comfort through music. Source: ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Review originally posted at mysteryandsuspense.com

  5. 4 out of 5

    Cheri

    This begins as Stefan Silbermann hears of the death of Sebastian Bach, the news coming to him when he receives a letter in his workshop where he makes organs, assisted by other men. He asks the five men for a moment of silence, and recognizing the solemnity of the moment, they clap their hands in preparation of prayer. They all knew Bach, even if not as closely associated as Stefan Silbermann had been. Memories come flooding back to Stefan, memories beginning with the death of his mother, and th This begins as Stefan Silbermann hears of the death of Sebastian Bach, the news coming to him when he receives a letter in his workshop where he makes organs, assisted by other men. He asks the five men for a moment of silence, and recognizing the solemnity of the moment, they clap their hands in preparation of prayer. They all knew Bach, even if not as closely associated as Stefan Silbermann had been. Memories come flooding back to Stefan, memories beginning with the death of his mother, and the period of time that followed when his father sent him to audition for the boys’ choir then led by Bach, who was then the church cantor for Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church in 1723. Stefan is accepted into the choir, if not readily accepted among all the other boys. Those that dislike him do so out of jealousy, tease him about his red hair, and basically spend their time trying to make his life as miserable as possible by stealing what few momentos he has brought with him from home, as well as making sure he is blamed for things he hasn’t done, and receives the punishment. But Bach believes in this boy, and not just his voice. Bach wants to deter Stefan from leaving the school, and thus the choir. Recognizing the talent in him, he invites him to live with his family, where he won’t be bullied quite as often, or blamed for things he hasn’t done. It is there that Stefan finds a place he can call home and becomes part of their family. Anna, Bach’s wife, is kind to him, and Catharina Bach’s daughter, befriends him. Catharina, whose obsession with collecting butterflies that frequent this story, if only briefly. A first love. This is as beautifully composed as the music it refers to, and although the time period it is set in is nearly 300 years ago, there is so much that hasn’t changed. The school-boy bullying of a new student, the heartbreak of loss, unrequited love. A striving for the beauty in this world, and the desire to hold onto that beauty. The way that an opinion of a person is often based on one impression, or one flaw - as though we don’t all have flaws. All the stars for this profoundly moving and lovely reflection on life, love, loss, and the beauty found in both music and silence. Published: 15 Mar 2022 Many thanks for the ARC provided by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Publishing

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tammy

    Bach has died and adult Stefan Silbermann recalls the portion of his boyhood spent with Bach and his family. At this time, Bach was a cantor and utilizes Stefan’s beautiful voice to its utmost. Bach, himself, is portrayed as a deeply human: envious, irascible, formidable, talented, humorous, loving, and prone to sermonizing. Bach’s deep religiosity leads him to musically represent the Passion of Saint Matthew. This is an adoring ode to that endeavor.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    It's 1727 in Leipzig, but it's all humankind in experience. The Cantor expects much. Too much. But in the process and in the living realities, all are gifted with inspiration, aspiration, and ultimate joy. Those that perform, those that listen, those that exist in now. Everyone. What eyes are expressed in this simple story. And never appreciated more either by those of us who live within the close depths of present current good-byes. Absolutely the best read for promise, awareness of energy descr It's 1727 in Leipzig, but it's all humankind in experience. The Cantor expects much. Too much. But in the process and in the living realities, all are gifted with inspiration, aspiration, and ultimate joy. Those that perform, those that listen, those that exist in now. Everyone. What eyes are expressed in this simple story. And never appreciated more either by those of us who live within the close depths of present current good-byes. Absolutely the best read for promise, awareness of energy described, appreciation for life's smallest blessings/ gifts, and with/ how to the owning for immense steps to better. Not looking backward, not piling chips of blame or anger, not denying the best choices possible. Ridding of all of that past baggage despite sickness, grief, downfall of spirit. Stefan received much good advice. Even with the first hint from the oboist of "I will not be threatened". But the Cantor, his kin, and his chorus helped the motherless down the lonely path. If you have no knowledge of Bach or his family, don't preread any information- take this straight on.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah-Hope

    The Grand Passion's plot moves forward gradually, letting the reader sink into the moments the novel depicts—and while in some ways these are ordinary moments, they are also extraordinary moments. The novel takes place in 1727-28 in Leipzig where Johann Sebastian Bach is cantor (essentially music director, conductor, and composer all in one) at a cathedral school. After his mother's death, thirteen-year-old Stefan Silberman is sent to spend a year at the school—a year that will allow his father The Grand Passion's plot moves forward gradually, letting the reader sink into the moments the novel depicts—and while in some ways these are ordinary moments, they are also extraordinary moments. The novel takes place in 1727-28 in Leipzig where Johann Sebastian Bach is cantor (essentially music director, conductor, and composer all in one) at a cathedral school. After his mother's death, thirteen-year-old Stefan Silberman is sent to spend a year at the school—a year that will allow his father to mourn privately and is intended to "distract" Stefan from his loss. Life at the school is a misery until Stefan's singing voice draws Bach's attention. After that, life is still a misery in many ways, but Stefan now has a purpose: singing, learning to play the organ, and gradually becoming an extended part of the Bach family. The Passion of the title is Bach's St. Matthew Passion—a massive, ground-breaking choral work that explores the depths and commonalities of grief. The St. Matthew Passion employs two choirs and two orchestras and runs for just under three hours. In the latter half of the book, Bach begins composing this work and Stefan is there as a singer, as a copyist, and as a boy witnessing an exceptional moment in Western music. I particularly enjoyed this title for two reasons. First, I was fascinated by the author's exploration of Bach's spirituality. I assume I'm like many people in thinking of Bach primarily as a composer in the abstract, a man who produced music and about whom I know little else. I'd connected Bach's music more to the liturgical calendar and his day-to-day work demands rather than to his faith. Runcie's Bach is spiritually driven, and for him spirit and music are a single entity. Second, I appreciated Stefan's voice—both as a boy and as an elderly man looking back after Bach's death at the time when his life and Bach's intersected. The prose is direct and unornamented. Stefan attempts to explain to himself as best he can what he sees around him during times bringing change and opportunity, but also isolation. I can't speak to the historical accuracy of this novel. I imagine there are sources that Runcie carefully explored, but clearly much of the novel's content is Runcie's creation. Is it "truth"? I don't know. But as an exploration of spirituality, musical inspiration, and coming of age, The Great Passion is remarkable. I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley; the opinions are my own.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    James Runcie is best known for his Grantchester novels and the television series based on them. His new novel The Great Passion takes us back to Bach and Leipzig in 1727, experienced through a prepubescent boy sent to study music before his voice breaks and he begins his career as a master organ maker, as is his father and his father was before him. Stefan is still grieving for his mother when he arrives at the school. Harsh discipline and bullying make the adjustment hard. The cantor, Johann Seb James Runcie is best known for his Grantchester novels and the television series based on them. His new novel The Great Passion takes us back to Bach and Leipzig in 1727, experienced through a prepubescent boy sent to study music before his voice breaks and he begins his career as a master organ maker, as is his father and his father was before him. Stefan is still grieving for his mother when he arrives at the school. Harsh discipline and bullying make the adjustment hard. The cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, notes the boy’s beautiful singing voice and ability on the organ. The rival soprano seethes at losing his place of favor with the cantor. For a time, Stefan lives with Bach’s family, the house full of activity, music focused, but also joyful. Until the death of their infant daughter. Bach had lost his first, beloved wife, and although he happily found love again, the pain remains. Now his wife is grieving. Stefan’s rival’s mother also dies. The awareness of life’s brevity and pain pervades their lives. In the midst of so much sorrow and loss, Bach is inspired to write a Good Friday cantata that will take listeners into the passion of Christ, putting them in the place of those who caused Jesus’ death and benefited from that act of love. The St. Matthew Passion is considered a masterpiece. For perhaps we can only appreciate what it is to be alive by recognising what it means when that life is removed from us. We are ravaged by absence. The void opens around us…Then, afterwards, when life forces us to continue, and we resume what is left of our time on earth, we listen to music as survivors…We grow to understand that our wounds give life its richness… from The Great Passion by James Runcie I was a choral singer. I began singing alto in Third Grade, and continued through high school choirs and college and community choirs. I was in the Choral Arts Society when they sang the Bach B Minor Mass on the stage of the Academy of Music with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Reading the line “we were no longer individual singers or instrumentalists, our identities, hopes and fears had been subsumed into something greater than ourselves,” I recognized the feeling I had about choral singing. The music has to do more than support the language, Monsieur Silbermann. It must take it to a place it could not get to on its own. from The Great Passion by James Runcie After reading the novel, I listened to the St Matthew Passion on Youtube, following with the choral music score my husband used when he sang it in college. As I listened to the singers and read the music, I understood the challenges of performing the music, so eloquently described in the novel. I understood the lessons Stefan had to learn about supporting the music, phrasing, where to take a breath. The Passion has two parts, and Runcie tells us the sermon was given between them. In the first part, the choir speaks of the guilt we all share, asking “Is it I” who betrayed Jesus, clamoring for Jesus to be punished for challenging the religious leaders. The music is dramatic. The second part is solemn, ending with Jesus laid in the tomb. Bach leaves us contemplative and sorrowful, the chorus singing the universal cry of grief, “We sit down in tears/And call to thee in the tomb:/Rest softly, softly rest!” I wondered what music Bach presented three days later on Easter Sunday to speak of the joy of resurrection and the embodiment of hope? Runcie’s father was Archbishop of Canterbury. I am the wife of a retired minister, well versed in Christian thought and liturgy. (I even audited classes when my husband was in seminary.) I had to consider if a non-Christian could read this book, could respond to Bach’s music? Bach does amazing things in the music. I did some online research and learned that “the only recorded review of the St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s lifetime was from an aged widow in the congregation: “God help us! It’s an opera-comedy!’ I personally don’t know which part was the ‘comedy,’ but there is such drama to be found, arias of grief that speak to the common human experience: we die; we grieve. Runcie imagines Bach’s desire to transport his listeners into a total engagement with the message, through his music. When he asks a widower to sing the bass, he counters every excuse, for he knows that the performance will be cathartic and the richer for the singer’s knowledge of human frailty and all the questions that come with a death. The story of music engaging a grieving people and pointing the way toward hope is particularly meaningful today when so many have been lost. What does it mean to be alive? How do we live with our grief? Can we find the “advancing light” when we are blinded by loss and anguish? How can love save us? The characters in the book grapple with these big questions. As do we. I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    Considering that J.S. Bach's "St Matthew Passion" is widely regarded as a pillar of the Western musical canon, it may appear surprising that we do not really know much about the composition and first performance of the Passion. We know that Bach wrote it for St Thomas Church, Leipzig, where he served as Kapellmeister or Thomascantor from 1723 to his death. We know that, as with many of the other sacred works, mostly cantatas, that Bach composed for the edification of the Leipzig congregation, th Considering that J.S. Bach's "St Matthew Passion" is widely regarded as a pillar of the Western musical canon, it may appear surprising that we do not really know much about the composition and first performance of the Passion. We know that Bach wrote it for St Thomas Church, Leipzig, where he served as Kapellmeister or Thomascantor from 1723 to his death. We know that, as with many of the other sacred works, mostly cantatas, that Bach composed for the edification of the Leipzig congregation, the Passion was an artistic collaboration between Bach and Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander, who provided poetic meditations to complement extracts from the Gospel of St Matthew. Most sources agree that the Passion was probably first performed at St Thomas Church, 11 April (Good Friday), 1727 although the year might also have been 1729. We can hazard a guess as to the identity of the musicians who performed for the Cantor – including the oboists Caspar Gleditsch and Gottfried Kornagel who, judging by the difficulty of the oboe parts, were great players indeed. Apart from these bare facts, we do not know much else. In The Great Passion, James Runcie makes up for this historical vacuum with a bold imagining of the months leading up to the first performance of Bach’s masterpiece. Runcie’s narrator is Stefan Silbermann, a scion of the (real-life) German organ-building family. In 1750, Stefan, now in his late thirties, learns of the death of the Cantor, which leads him to reminisce about the year he spent as a student of the St Thomas Church in his early teens. At the time, still grieving following the death of his mother, bullied by the other schoolboys for his red hair, yet showing great promise as a singer and organist, Stefan is taken in by the cantor and his wife Anna Magdalena, and practically becomes a member of the Bach household. He witnesses at first hand the composer at his work, and unwittingly contributes to the creation of what would become known as the St Matthew Passion. Runcie adopts a traditional and direct narrative style, free of experimental flourishes, and yet particularly appropriate for the voice of the earnest Stefan. The story skilfully interweaves fictional characters with plenty of historical ones – Johann Sebastian Bach and his wife Anna Magdalena, Bach’s children including Catharina (Stefan’s ‘love interest’ in this novel), Picander, oboists Gleditsch and Kornagel, and Bach’s rivals including composer Georg Philipp Telemann. In each case, Runcie takes what we know about these historical individuals and fleshes them out into real-life characters who speak through the pages of his novel. His portrayal of the cantor is particularly convincing. Despite Stefan’s awestruck respect for his mentor, we are still shown Sebastian’s very human characteristics. JSB is a workaholic with a deeply spiritual vein, but can also be jealous, short-tempered and, on occasion, arrogant. Both the historical and musical background are well-researched, and the recreation of the the atmosphere of church and school in 18th Century Leipzig has an authentic feel to it. But where Runcie really triumphs is in his depiction of music. Writing about music is notoriously difficult – “like dancing about architecture”, to use a much-bandied phrase. Yet, in language which largely eschews technical terms, Runcie still manages to describe several of Bach’s works uncannily well, not least the Great Passion of the title. He also expresses the excitement of a first performance, the tension of the musicians, the expectations of the audience and that sense of satisfaction and release following a successful concert which performers know very well. Runcie’s novel is one in which tragedy, suffering and death are all-pervasive. Yet, Runcie suggests, music – like faith – can accompany us in grief, leading us on a journey of healing. This is, ultimately, the message beautifully conveyed in this novel. Full review, with a musical postscript at https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/20...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)

    Sadly, this book is just not appealing to me. Perhaps I will someday resume reading it. I made it up to 22% and it is just not my time to read it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sid Nuncius

    I thought The Great Passion was very good in many ways, but it did drag a little in places. Set mainly in 1727, this is the story of Stefan Silbermann, a young boy soprano whose mother has recently died, who is sent away to school in Leipzig with Johann Sebastian Bach. Narrated by Stefan himself, we hear of his grief at his loss, his loneliness at school and the bullying he receives, not least because of his red hair and his musical excellence. Eventually taken in by the Bach family, there follow I thought The Great Passion was very good in many ways, but it did drag a little in places. Set mainly in 1727, this is the story of Stefan Silbermann, a young boy soprano whose mother has recently died, who is sent away to school in Leipzig with Johann Sebastian Bach. Narrated by Stefan himself, we hear of his grief at his loss, his loneliness at school and the bullying he receives, not least because of his red hair and his musical excellence. Eventually taken in by the Bach family, there follows a study especially of Bach and his wife Ann Magdalena; of Bach’s deep, unshakeable faith and his expression of it through music, and the family’s response to a grief of their own. There is also a fine background of life in Lutheran Leipzig and a good deal of theological discussion (which Anna Magdalena calls Bach’ sermonising), culminating in the composition and performance of the masterpiece that is the St. Matthew Passion. Much of the first part of the book is excellent. Stefan’s situation and state of mind are humanely and convincingly drawn. The juxtaposition of both the joy and struggle of becoming a real musician with the harshness of much of the rest of life is very effective and James Runcie writes very insightfully about the music itself. There is a touching infatuation by Stefan with one of Bach’s daughters (which may be a play on the book’s title). There were some longeurs in the middle, though; Bach’s sermonising did get a bit much at times and I felt that while Runcie knows a great deal about the cantatas which Bach wrote for each Sunday service and gave a good account of what each set text really meant, they did turn into a bit of a procession. So much so that when we arrived at the sublime Ich Habe Genug, including a moving account of why it was chosen for one of the singers, what should have been a profound moment just felt a bit flat. That said, I thought the account of the composition, preparation and performance of the Passion itself was excellent. I am no Bach expert, but I have loved his music for decades and know a bit about it; this seemed to me to be a very knowledgeable, moving and heartfelt exploration of one of music’s greatest achievements. So, I thought this was good but not perfect. I think you need to have an interest in music, including in the details of performance, and in the history of religious thought; I do (especially in the former); I enjoyed the book and I can recommend it. (My thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC via NetGalley.)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    'The Great Passion' is a tribute to Bach, clad in the touching story of a grieving, bullied boy, who finds refuge in the composer's home. As its reader I became acquainted with Bach's prolific genius and life in the early 1700s in Germany. The author successfully depicts the circumstances of a large and blended family, headed by a benign despot and genius. The novel's protagonist, Stefan Silbermann, recently bereaved of his mother and cruelly bullied at the boarding school for his red hair, beco 'The Great Passion' is a tribute to Bach, clad in the touching story of a grieving, bullied boy, who finds refuge in the composer's home. As its reader I became acquainted with Bach's prolific genius and life in the early 1700s in Germany. The author successfully depicts the circumstances of a large and blended family, headed by a benign despot and genius. The novel's protagonist, Stefan Silbermann, recently bereaved of his mother and cruelly bullied at the boarding school for his red hair, becomes a protégé of Bach's due to his angelic soprano and willingness to work hard. Enriched and matured, Stefan leaves Leipzig and the Bachs at the end of the school year, but not before the St. Matthew passion is completed and performed. I was impressed by the author's detailed research into and knowledge of Bach's work, and the manner in which he brought the era to life. The latter is well illustrated by the hollow, but realistic consequence of Bach's death: the family no longer has a home, has to disperse, and must find a means to survive. Although I found the content of the novel interesting, I struggled with its style. Dialogue-heavy, it initially conveyed an appropriate sense of rushed urgency, but became tedious to read as it persisted and, I felt, served to dimish character development. I could also imagine that, like myself, many readers might struggle to make sense of many of the Latin phrases and German song titles that are not always translated, or inadequately so. Overall, I found the book worth reading and thank NetGalley and the publishers for the eARC that allowed me to write this unbiased and voluntary review.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    First sentence: 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 wha First sentence: 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. Set in Leipzig, Germany, in 1727/28, The Great Passion is a historical novel about Johann Sebastian Bach's writing of St. Matthew's Passion. The protagonist is a young musician, Stefan Silbermann, who is studying under the Cantor (aka Bach). The book chronicles his time at school--for better or worse. He's mourning the loss of his mother and struggling to make friends with his classmates. But his time with Bach and his family help him make peace and find his voice. I love, love, love, LOVE this novel. I love it because it is beautifully written. It is such an incredible read. Amazing narrative style. I do recommend listening to Bach's St. Matthew's passion--either in German or English. You can find it easily online to stream. (Several different recordings are found on Spotify.) Favorite quotes: We may travel through the valley of the shadow of death, but how we live is what matters, don’t you think? We have to make full use of the opportunities and talents that God has given us. Do not forget the Parable of the Talents. It commands us to work. I’ll tell you a secret, Monsieur Silbermann. Everyone, no matter who they are in life, feels alone. We are on our own and we are all afraid.’ ‘You think that’s true?’ ‘I know it is. We just have to accept it and live through it.’ We cannot understand light without darkness, joy without pain, peace without war, love without hatred, beauty without ugliness or youth without age. We only know the best by experiencing the worst. We understand life because of death. We can only be reborn once we die. You must love the Lord as boldly as you can,’ he told her. ‘Then you will have no fear. Remember Luther. “The smaller the love the greater the fear.” I even wondered if it was too much to bear, to keep coming back to the loss, even in music, but one thing the Cantor taught me was that, as well as practising new pieces, I could apply our recent experience and understanding to the preludes and chorales I had played in the past. They were old acquaintances, he told me, friends who would never disappoint. I could revisit them and see them in the light of any greater maturity or wisdom I had acquired, and then add different interpretations and variations. Our daily task is to remember that all of life is learning. When we think of the behaviour of other people,’ he began, ‘we have to remember that almost everyone is frightened of something. It might be a confrontation that we are worried about, a piece of work, a continuing illness or the death of a friend, but we should keep in mind that if nothing lasts in this world then the very thing that we dread the most cannot last either. All things must pass. The moment we have feared approaches. It takes place. Then it becomes the past: and only a memory. So, rather than dreading the moment, perhaps we should look forward to the memory of it instead? We must learn to think beyond our fears. Perhaps you are too young to contemplate this, but one day, I promise, you will understand.’ We have to remember that the reverse is true. We are living as long as we are dying. We should not continue in dread. No one can thrive in the shadows. Perhaps some people are more at home when they play music than they are when they live their life. If the joy provided by the birth of our Lord is infinite, then so must be the variations, Monsieur Silbermann! There is so much pain and misery in the world that people forget the joy: the sure and certain hope that our sorrows will one day end. Always remember that this is so much greater than the anxieties we face on earth!’ He struck out a few phrases on his own to show me what he meant. ‘It will be Lent soon enough, and we will be lost in the winds of winter; but Advent lasts just as long in the year, and its message is eternally optimistic. We concentrate on what the story means at the same time as telling it. We develop the themes of sacrifice, sorrow and loss, extracting all the pain and all the love so that, when it comes to the end, the congregation understands that there is nothing left to give. Nothing more can be said or sung.’ The Cantor stood by the fire as the wood took. ‘A work that is an act of faith in itself?’ ‘We have to make them think that their lives depend on how well they listen. We have to present the hardest and most bitter sorrow anyone has ever known.’ ‘And how do we do that?’ ‘We set the story in the present. What would the people of Leipzig say if Christ came to us today, and they saw him now, in the town square, or outside the city walls? Would they believe him? Would they follow him? Or would they still crucify him as they have just killed that prisoner we saw beheaded? What happened there was far more violent and prolonged than anything anyone had been expecting. The crowd was volatile, impatient and quick to condemn. Their inhumanity was frightening. It can’t be a sombre reflection on something that happened long ago. We need agitation, conflict. Perhaps we can even imagine the past and the present speaking to each other: what it meant to those first witnesses to the Passion of our Lord, and what it means to us now: our truth and their truth, how people crucify Christ every day.’ The Cantor let the idea take hold. ‘An opening exordium. A funeral tombeau. Write this down, Monsieur Silbermann. Two choirs. The Old and New Testament.’ ‘The Daughters of Zion from the Song of Songs meet the new Christian believers,’ said Picander. ‘We use the chorus in the same way the Greeks did. They can choose to take part, or they can step aside. They act and they commentate. They express their pity, their anger, their fear and their sorrow.’ When Jesus told his followers that one of them was going to betray him, the response, Lord, is it I?, came eleven times, one for each of the disciples apart from Judas. This was followed by a silence. And in this quiet came the terrible realisation that this wasn’t a question that only the disciples could ask. We had to ask it too: Lord, is it I? We were all, equally, responsible.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Primrosebarks

    Some really excellent reviews on this book already; I have some comments, so not a review, just some thoughts: I am so grateful I am not living in Leipzig in 1729!!! Death came quickly and unexpectedly, especially for young children and babies. There was no understanding of nutrition, disease control, or hygiene. There was food scarcity, witch-burning and horrendous, torturous executions encouraging mob violence, and there was a reactive, overarching belief that life was suffering, but somehow a Some really excellent reviews on this book already; I have some comments, so not a review, just some thoughts: I am so grateful I am not living in Leipzig in 1729!!! Death came quickly and unexpectedly, especially for young children and babies. There was no understanding of nutrition, disease control, or hygiene. There was food scarcity, witch-burning and horrendous, torturous executions encouraging mob violence, and there was a reactive, overarching belief that life was suffering, but somehow a reward in heaven would recompense this. There was heartfelt hatred of other religions and denominations, and a heavy reliance on literal Scripture to uplift one in this harsh culture: again, mostly relying on a better outcome in heaven. As my music history teacher said, the Church was "the greatest show on earth"---a place where you could forget your troubles (fall asleep, read a paper, etc.). It was a day off from arduous work. A place where you could feel safe, and maybe choose to hear long, droning sermons and some beautiful music. What a horrendous environment to live in. And yet, this culture promoted virtue, love, forgiveness (only if you were a member of the Protestant faith), and weirdly, excellence in music. Who knew? In our American culture we are overindulgent, have a generally sloppy work ethic, and a comfortable, entertaining life. We eat too much, drink too much, and complain about anything difficult about our lives. The horrendous things in our American culture are hidden away (executions, Guantanamo, the outrageous abuse of families trying to immigrate to the U.S., racism, child abuse, misogyny) and so en masse we are not challenged with the painful inequities that the people of Leipzig had to endure in the 18th century. We simply just switch the channel, and all is good. We live in a bubble of opulence. But somehow, out of the extremely difficult living conditions in the 18th century, incredible beauty erupted that still resonates 3 centuries later. Why? Do we have anything in our culture that can compare with that? Please, if you want to listen to the St. Matthew Passion, take the time to learn about "text painting". It will enhance your appreciation of the genius of J.S.Bach. (I tried to find a good YouTube reference to this subject, but was disappointed.) Handel's Messiah is a great example of text painting: "Every Valley..Shall the Crooked Be Made Straight" has the bass wandering over long melismas denoting peaks and valleys in long phrases; other arias have angels flutter away with high trills after their pronouncements). My best example in the St. Matthew Passion was the dragging of the cross by Jesus to Golgotha, where the Ka-Thump! Ka-Thump! rhythm in the music depicted the cross as it was painfully dragged up steps---it was truly heartbreaking. Overall, what a wonderful, beautiful work of art. In college I wrote a paper on the St. Matthew Passion (we were required to submit two pages, but I wrote 45 pages, because I was so in love with this thing), and the opening: the chorus inviting us to hear the story of Jesus' execution, still makes me cry. That being said, I'm not religious. Such is the power of this great musical work. About the book itself, sadly, I am left with something missing. It was a beautiful book and a good effort, but it just didn't ring my bell. Thanks for trying, Mr. Runcie. A greater connection with the child's appreciation of the brilliant, heartfelt angst of Bach's work would have helped me appreciate this book more. I did not find that---perhaps it was a failure on my part. Best wishes for your future ventures.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joann

    A delightful one year exposure to the JS Bach family and all the music it entails. Runcie has so clearly described the music I could almost hum along (much to Bach’s consternation I am sure). Grief is the theme as played out in the daily lives of the characters and culminating in the St. Matthew Passion. Very well rendered.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Edwards

    A TRIBUTE TO JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH CLOTHED IN A COMING OF AGE TALE In 1727 Germany, Stefan, 13 years old, is sent to school, after his mother died. Johann Sebastion Bach is Cantor and Stefan’s talent for singing is recognized; he learns from Bach not only singing but lessons of life from a Biblical perspective. “This school helps you anticipate the unexpected and be ready for anything” Bach tells him from experience since he lost his first wife and many children. Bach writes compositions for Stef A TRIBUTE TO JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH CLOTHED IN A COMING OF AGE TALE In 1727 Germany, Stefan, 13 years old, is sent to school, after his mother died. Johann Sebastion Bach is Cantor and Stefan’s talent for singing is recognized; he learns from Bach not only singing but lessons of life from a Biblical perspective. “This school helps you anticipate the unexpected and be ready for anything” Bach tells him from experience since he lost his first wife and many children. Bach writes compositions for Stefan to sing and he rehearses with Bach’s wife – Anna Magdalen (I play some of these pieces from the Anna Magdalen Back Notebook so this connection was so fascinating.) The other students, jealous of his favored treatment and private tutelage, bully him. Bach takes him into his home where his wife and he are kind. Anna, who is very kind and loving and reminds him of his own mother. Under Bach’s teaching, Stefan’s musical ability and skill improve greatly. And Bach always uses music as a metaphor for God’s love and grace; beautiful lessons abound throughout the book. Bach’s 3 year old daughter died of a fever and Bach thinks it best for Stefan to return to school so his family can grieve alone. Stefan blames himself since he had the fever first and may have infected little Etta. Back at school, he is set up to appear as though he stole a teacher’s watch and sent to the school prison. Upon investigation, though, his nemesis, a spoiled and jealous student, is found guilty. Stefan is released. Other students continue to bully him because he is more talented than they are. Bach helps him to overcome bullying by sharing that he, also was mocked for his orange hair. “You must have an unconcerned response rehearsed – much as your music” he wisely advises. The passages of Bach coaching Stefan how to sing so angelically were amazing. Bach gave him Biblical examples, background and painted a picture of the situation (i.e. Mary, in the book of Luke, feels her baby, her Lord, kick for the first time, knowing she carried God Himself, Redeemer child – born to rescue the World.) Stefan played and sang at not just weddings and funerals but also at an execution, described in all its gore. In preparation of Holy Week, Stefan suggests writing a musical score as if Christ was not in Jerusalem but in their German town and in their century. Bach incorporates that into his famous St. Matthew’s Passion, using Matthew Chapters 26 and 27: Last Supper, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. Bach asks Stefan, “what will our patrons hear – that we are more than our suffering. We face trials and hopes to triumph because our faith protects us.” Bach, throughout the book, repeats that the CHIEF PURPOSE OF MUSIC IS TO HONOR THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE. QUOTES: 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 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 bewilderment will last. We must be grateful for each blessing God gives us rather than nurse every injustice. Unhappiness is a form of ingratitude. The torments of the world are nothing compared with the glory that God will reveal. Your suffering will reap glory. WE CANNOT BE DEFINED BY OUR GRIEF or IT’S THE ONLY THNG PEOPLE WILL REMEMBER ABOUT US. The sorrows that befell us all were a necessary symmetry and part of God’s purpose and design. Ideas and emotions, patterns and events could only be known through their opposites. We cannot understand light without darkness, joy without pain, peace without war, love without hatred, beauty without ugliness or youth without age. We only know the best by experiencing the worst. We understand life because of death. But if you avoid grief, you will not experience what it means to be human. We can only appreciate what it is to be alive by recognizing what it means when that life is removed from us. OUR WOUNDS GIVE LIFE ITS RICHNESS. The world is divided between the healthy and the sick. The walls that divide them are very high. It is important to celebrate each day. It doesn’t matter how small a pleasure was or how long it lasted but each simple pleasure needs to be marked. It can be the sight of a flower or a smile of a friend or the silence at the end of a piece of music. I wonder if silence is a kind of home. We have it before we are born and after it has ended. The beating of music is the same as the counting of time. Bach kept playing with the limits and possibilities of musical invention; fugues with mirrored themes that inverted, intertwined and went back on themselves. He rushed to get down the notes in his head before they escaped, trying to write at the speed with which a piece should be played.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David Dunlap

    It is a rare historical novel that not only creates its time and people in a startlingly realistic manner, but also has much to tell the reader about life, death, faith, and struggle. Such is this remarkable book! -- The year is 1750. Stefan Silbermann, an organ maker in Freiburg, Germany, who has just received word of the death of Cantor Johann Sebastian Bach of Leipzig. Some 23 years earlier, school-aged Stefan had been sent to Leipzig by his widowed father to study. The bulk of the book consi It is a rare historical novel that not only creates its time and people in a startlingly realistic manner, but also has much to tell the reader about life, death, faith, and struggle. Such is this remarkable book! -- The year is 1750. Stefan Silbermann, an organ maker in Freiburg, Germany, who has just received word of the death of Cantor Johann Sebastian Bach of Leipzig. Some 23 years earlier, school-aged Stefan had been sent to Leipzig by his widowed father to study. The bulk of the book consists of his reminiscences of his time in Leipzig: being bullied by the other boys, being taken into the home of Cantor Bach and getting to know the family, particularly Bach himself, his (second) wife Anna Magdalena, and the Cantor's eldest daughter Catharina. The other Bach children (there were so many!) are not as much flushed out, but as Stefan's focus is on his teacher, his wife, and the daughter, this is understandable. The book is a long build-up to the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion (1727), which seems a bit anticlimactic. Still, the writing style is simple and direct. The story is very involving and deeply moving. Highly recommended, especially to readers who are interested in the music of J.S. Bach.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Michael A.

    A wonderful book depicting the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach through the narrative of a thirteen year old boy, who due to his own life circumstances, ends up studying under Bach and living day to day with Bach’s large family. The story is compelling, depicting life in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1700’s. where life is centered around music and church and unfortunately premature death is common. A truly unique and special book. Thanks to my friend John.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Anne Gafiuk

    Having sung some Bach while I was in a choir, I appreciated the author's research on Bach, music, and the structure of a choral composition. This is a story about Bach and his second wife, their family, who take in a student. The family is portrayed as compassionate and kind. If a person is well acquainted with Bach and liturgical music, this book is for them. Having sung some Bach while I was in a choir, I appreciated the author's research on Bach, music, and the structure of a choral composition. This is a story about Bach and his second wife, their family, who take in a student. The family is portrayed as compassionate and kind. If a person is well acquainted with Bach and liturgical music, this book is for them.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jane Haderlein

    Brilliant historical fiction. Learned a lot about Bach and his genius.

  22. 5 out of 5

    g

    extremely british vision of a very german story

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    With thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advance review copy. This is the story of the year which culminated in the composition of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the Great Passion of the title, which I am listening to as I write. Events are narrated by the 35-year-old Stefan Silbermann, moved by the news of Bach’s death to look back to the year 1726 when, following the death of his mother when he was 11, his father sent him away to choir school in Leipzig. The cantor at the school is none o With thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advance review copy. This is the story of the year which culminated in the composition of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the Great Passion of the title, which I am listening to as I write. Events are narrated by the 35-year-old Stefan Silbermann, moved by the news of Bach’s death to look back to the year 1726 when, following the death of his mother when he was 11, his father sent him away to choir school in Leipzig. The cantor at the school is none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, a driven but kindly taskmaster who is struck by the boy’s potential. When Stefan is bullied by the other boys and suffers in the atmosphere of casual cruelty prevalent at the school, Bach takes him under his wing, introduces him to his house and family, and provides him with the opportunity to watch the master at work and help him with tasks such as copying and transcribing manuscripts. And when tragedy strikes in the Bach family, he is witness to the way Bach finds consolation in his faith and channels his grief at the loss of his youngest daughter into the composition of what is now considered to be one of the finest Baroque works in existence. The character of Bach as portrayed here is vivid and believable - a man inspired by an unshakeable faith, with an indomitable energy, a larger-than-life workaholic and a bit of a trial to his family on a day-to-day basis. He is anything but indulgent of himself and those around him, but he is loving and kind. Sadly, the other characters in the book are nowhere near as convincingly or engagingly drawn. In particular I had a problem with the narrator Stefan. It is very much not the voice of an 11-year-old telling the story - fair enough as this is a recollection from 24 years down the line, but it is a very precise and linear recollection which just doesn’t feel realistic. There are huge swathes of quotation of sermons and conversations which simply could not have been remembered in that much detail. And there really is a LOT of sermonising, which does get a bit repetitive. The most interesting parts, at least to me as a chorister myself, are the accounts of the composition process, explaining what the music is aiming to achieve and how it does so - to explain holy events and the word of God by making the audience become completely immersed in the narrative, supported by the music itself, all for the ultimate glory of God. Over all, this is not a wholeheartedly absorbing read by any means. It is uneven and too long, but not uninteresting. It would have benefited from a hard prune.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cheryle

    What a fantastic look at what could be the life of Johann Sebastian Bach through the everyday occurances. The focus is a 13 year old who is struggling to come to terms with his mothers death. He is very musical and his family builds organs. He is sent to a boarding school where Bach is a teacher. Through this look at a year in his life we see what kind of life most likely took place in the Bach household. Stefan is bullied and runs away but once found lives with the Bach family. He is infatuated What a fantastic look at what could be the life of Johann Sebastian Bach through the everyday occurances. The focus is a 13 year old who is struggling to come to terms with his mothers death. He is very musical and his family builds organs. He is sent to a boarding school where Bach is a teacher. Through this look at a year in his life we see what kind of life most likely took place in the Bach household. Stefan is bullied and runs away but once found lives with the Bach family. He is infatuated with the eldest daughter as well as the music that he is learning to sing and play. 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.

  25. 5 out of 5

    John

    His mother having died, the 13-year-old narrator is sent to boarding school in Leipzig, where he is bullied by his peers because he is new, and because of his red hair. But he is championed by the cantor, who recognizes the quality of his soprano voice. The cantor is Johann Sebastian Bach. Stefan Silbermann's school year in Leipzig culminates in the composition and Good Friday presentation of Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." I love the way Bach and his family are portrayed in this novel. They come His mother having died, the 13-year-old narrator is sent to boarding school in Leipzig, where he is bullied by his peers because he is new, and because of his red hair. But he is championed by the cantor, who recognizes the quality of his soprano voice. The cantor is Johann Sebastian Bach. Stefan Silbermann's school year in Leipzig culminates in the composition and Good Friday presentation of Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." I love the way Bach and his family are portrayed in this novel. They come across, of course, as a very musical family and also a family that's capable of having fun together. Bach is a loving but demanding father, a devout Christian, given to sermonizing and often impatient and short-tempered, particularly when a work is being rehearsed. It's a believable portrait. This is a delightful book. There's an old-fashioned innocence to it. Bach's 16-year-old, butterfly-collecting daughter befriends Stefan, and he develops a crush on her. They spend time together in a way that might prompt another author to steamy excess, but James Runcie allows only a chaste kiss to the back of the neck. The only section of the novel that's disconcerting is the description of an execution. Also, the ending seemed anticlimactic. The real climax is the description of the Good Friday service in which the Passion is debuted. Oh to be able to go back in time and be there and see Bach himself conduct his greatest work. Runcie at least gives us an idea of what it might have been like. The ideal way to read "The Great Passion" is while listening to Bach, and in the final chapters it would be ideal to listen to "St. Matthew's Passion" itself. If a greater work has ever been composed, I haven't heard it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Archer

    Stefan Silbermann is sent away to school in 1727 after his mother passes. When he arrives there, he meets the new cantor who is none other the J.S. Bach. Bach quickly realizes this young boy’s talent and takes him under his wing. While he is excelling at school and the Bach family adores Stefan, students become jealous and he is bullied by his classmates. While Stefan is still reeling from his own loss of his mother, the Bach’s experience a great loss also, that transforms their relationship. Tak Stefan Silbermann is sent away to school in 1727 after his mother passes. When he arrives there, he meets the new cantor who is none other the J.S. Bach. Bach quickly realizes this young boy’s talent and takes him under his wing. While he is excelling at school and the Bach family adores Stefan, students become jealous and he is bullied by his classmates. While Stefan is still reeling from his own loss of his mother, the Bach’s experience a great loss also, that transforms their relationship. Taking place as Bach is writing The Great Passion, Bach writes a vibrant piece of music that Stefan is brought into. He has the great honor and trust of copying his music to paper. As a music major in college, I gravitated towards this books. Runcie places a lot of details of that time and integrates great musicians perfectly into the story. It is obviously well researched. This did start a little slower for me, but very much picked up at the end that I actually wanted a little more. I am not sure, if my timing was slightly off for reading this and maybe in a month or so, I would have loved it even more, but it was still a solid read. If you love baroque music or just want to read a good story, then give this one a try. Thank you NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Haar

    4.5 stars Contemplative, but focused exploration of grief and how music can help smooth the edges of loss. In The Great Passion, James Runcie gives us a portrait of composer, JS Bach, though the eyes of a young boy who comes to live in his household. Young Stefan is sent to a boarding school after the death of his mother, but is horrendously bullied for his red hair and perceived weakness. Before long, he finds relief in the Bach family. Through Stefan, we get a rich portrait of JS Bach. Runcie p 4.5 stars Contemplative, but focused exploration of grief and how music can help smooth the edges of loss. In The Great Passion, James Runcie gives us a portrait of composer, JS Bach, though the eyes of a young boy who comes to live in his household. Young Stefan is sent to a boarding school after the death of his mother, but is horrendously bullied for his red hair and perceived weakness. Before long, he finds relief in the Bach family. Through Stefan, we get a rich portrait of JS Bach. Runcie portrays Bach as a workaholic, always composing and demanding perfection from his performers. But we also see Bach as a family man beset with grief and longing. Through his music, specifically the St. Matthew's Passion, Stefan and others are able to gain beautiful insights into their grief. Runcie is direct with his storytelling and purposeful with his structure. The historical details seem well-researched and add depth to the story. Leipzig and it's inhabitants become relatable and realistic. Runcie never loses sight of his themes, revolving every chapter around grief and faith and music. This is a truly remarkable novel. Not only do we get a glimpse into the life of JS Bach, but subtle truths about life and grief are expertly revealed along the way. Even without an interest in Bach, I would still highly recommend this subdued, but penetrating novel.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hugh Dunnett

    James Runcie has a knack for capturing a time and a place. I have enjoyed many of his 'Grantchester Mysteries', much more for the atmosphere and the morality of a lost England of the 1950s and 1960s than the crime/detective fiction ‘basis’ of these novels. The Great Passion is certainly quite unlike the gentle cosy mystery vibe of the 'Grantchester Mysteries' but it is similar in its sense of being very distinctly of a certain era and location. Its characters are vivid and believable and the set James Runcie has a knack for capturing a time and a place. I have enjoyed many of his 'Grantchester Mysteries', much more for the atmosphere and the morality of a lost England of the 1950s and 1960s than the crime/detective fiction ‘basis’ of these novels. The Great Passion is certainly quite unlike the gentle cosy mystery vibe of the 'Grantchester Mysteries' but it is similar in its sense of being very distinctly of a certain era and location. Its characters are vivid and believable and the setting is immediately almost tangible. In short, it does what the best historical fiction can do and transports the reader. This novel is obviously a labour of love for the author and is as much an exploration of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as it is an historical novel. At the end of The Great Passion, you come away with not only a feeling of better understanding Bach and what helped to form his compositions but also deeper understanding of the music, theology, faith and worship that makes up the St Matthew Passion itself. But beyond the ‘academic’ formation of the novel, The Great Passion touches on all of the parts that make for a truly fascinating novel: love, loss, grief, hope, joy – all components that make for a great narrative but also, the vital truth and passion of the gospel that inspired Bach’s extraordinary masterpiece.

  29. 4 out of 5

    MaryEllen Clark

    This is a beautiful book, written by the author of the Grantchester series. This is quite a different piece of historical fiction. It starts a bit slowly but worth persisting, as it builds towards the final chapters where Bach is composing and rehearsing the premiere of The St. Matthew's Passion. Anyone who has performed in a musical group, be it a choir or orchestra will quickly be drawn into the drama surrounding Bach's composing and rehearsing of this masterwork. You can imagine yourself, in This is a beautiful book, written by the author of the Grantchester series. This is quite a different piece of historical fiction. It starts a bit slowly but worth persisting, as it builds towards the final chapters where Bach is composing and rehearsing the premiere of The St. Matthew's Passion. Anyone who has performed in a musical group, be it a choir or orchestra will quickly be drawn into the drama surrounding Bach's composing and rehearsing of this masterwork. You can imagine yourself, in Leipzig, under Bach's baton and trying to live up to the brilliant composer's exacting standards, difficult and exquisite musical vision and perform this piece for the first time. The story is told through the eyes, or rather the voice, of a young boy soprano who has lost his mother, alone in a new school and bullied by his classmates, eventually taken in to work and live with the Bach family. Runcie masterfully portrays the human side of the great composer - a loving father, driven composer and Cantor. This book is also a soulful meditation on the nature of death, loss, and how music can express the true meaning of life and transcend the ordinary drab darkness. It will make you want to listen to St. Matthews Passion with new appreciation and depth of understanding.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ted Hinkle

    Bravo, Bravo....what a wonderful discovery on the new release shelf at the library. Historical fiction based on the Baroque period, life of J.S. Bach, and creation of St. Matthew's Passion...what is not to like? James Runcie's compelling novel is extremely well written, describing the life of the illustrious Cantor, Kapellmeister, his family, students, colleagues and proteges. I would recommend this treasure as a welcome addition to music school library shelves and as suggested reading for music Bravo, Bravo....what a wonderful discovery on the new release shelf at the library. Historical fiction based on the Baroque period, life of J.S. Bach, and creation of St. Matthew's Passion...what is not to like? James Runcie's compelling novel is extremely well written, describing the life of the illustrious Cantor, Kapellmeister, his family, students, colleagues and proteges. I would recommend this treasure as a welcome addition to music school library shelves and as suggested reading for music history classes. THE GREAT PASSION hit a resounding nerve with me, ranking as one of my all time favorites. So many fine musical references and jargon, both teaching and performance as well as profound spiritual sensitivity. Referencing the creation and development of the appointed work:ST. MATTHEW PASSION ..'the music has to be full of pain and love'....'sing as though your own salivation depends on this very chorale'..'at the final chord there was silence...never known before....nothing more needed to be said or played or sung'. "Rest gently, gently rest." There was silence as we remembered him. Runcie, in my humble opinion, has penned a 'passionate, music related masterpiece, a classic' for the ages.

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