The Great Passion
by James Runcie
By MICHELENE WANDOR.
THE TITLE OF this demanding and rewarding novel resonates in two directions: the first is towards the composition and performance of Bach’s ‘great’ St Matthew Passion. The second is the passion for music which infuses Bach’s profession, driving his life and that of his large family. The story is filtered through the prism of Stefan Silbermann’s point of view; son of an organ builder, his passion, too, is music: singer, keyboard player, copyist, and occasional composer.
When young Stefan’s mother dies, his father sends him away to boarding school. Shades of Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall – he is bullied, as much for his beautiful singing as for his vulnerability. The first section sets up his childhood suffering so powerfully that it is a relief when he is taken into the Bach family. Second wife, Anna Magdalena, oversees a house full of people, noise, children, constant practising; there is no privacy and therefore no secrets.
Our modern distinction between adults and children (indeed, the concept of ‘childhood’ itself) has not yet come into being, and this, one might say, provides one of the justifications for the way Bach speaks to Stefan, weaving theology, philosophy and disquisitions on life while teaching him musicianship and coaching him in performance. Conversation consists largely of fulsome paragraphs interspersed by action. Bach has a tendency to speak in metaphors, as he guides Stefan into adulthood. Through all this threads the music which Bach is commissioned to compose; with rehearsal and performance a constant presence.
There are carefully placed details and delicate set pieces. Rooms must be kept at an even temperature to stop instruments going out of tune. Stefan is drawn to Catharina, one of Bach’s older children. She collects butterflies, and there is a touching unrequited moment when they go swimming and he kisses her. Mushroom picking in the forest is the setting for spontaneous music-making, with a Monteverdi echo piece among the trees. Stefan witnesses the horror of a public execution in Leipzig with music played for the ‘occasion’. Leavening the seriousness, come Telemann and his socialite wife. Sebastian (as Bach is addressed) is scornful (and not a little jealous) of his contemporary’s prodigious musical output.
The novel culminates in the creation of the St Matthew Passion and its performance in Leipzig. There is nothing romantic about putting together a work of art: the choice of texts by Picandor, and the Cantor’s (as Bach is also known) frustrations when people are ill, or just don’t show up for rehearsal. As Stefan sings, he remembers his mother, bringing the narrative almost full circle. The coda, twenty-three years later, brings Stefan back to Leipzig for Bach’s funeral. Anna Magdalena must leave with her remaining children and Catharina, and the whole ends on a bittersweet note.
The Great Passion is more than a gripping historical biographic novel – though it is certainly that. It is also an impressive example of ekphrasis – the imaginative rendering in words of a non-verbal art: in this case, music. Runcie achieves this by folding the practice of music (composition and performance) into its social context, as well as giving an account of its features – keys, pace, dynamics, along with an understanding of how skills can be developed. The Cantor encourages Stefan to improvise, and teaches him techniques to help practise difficult passages. For readers who are musicians, it will be satisfying; for those who listen to music, it may help to demystify some of the romanticism attached to musical reception.
Few novels tackle music well – Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, perhaps the most recent successful example, does so with a narrative tone rather different from Runcie’s novel. Set in 1999, Seth’s novel is faster-paced, popularly, one might say, written, and perhaps easier to read.
THIS OPENS UP some interesting questions about genre and fictional techniques. The Great Passion is clearly what we would call a ‘literary’ novel (a tautology! How could imaginative writing be anything but literary?). Useful definitions claim the literary as a novel which doesn’t race along on a plot axis, may be considered ‘serious’, perhaps belonging to ‘high’, as opposed to mass or popular, culture. It may garner prizes, possibly move at a slower pace than, say, a spy novel or a thriller. The language may be more elaborate, demanding more considered reading.
One of the keys (!) to this is the relationship between the narrative voice (third-person, past-tense here), and the dialogue. Inverted commas bring dialogue into the apparent, dramatic present – it is immediate – we read the speech as if it is being spoken at the moment of reading – as if it were a dramatic performance. This simultaneous presence of past and present in the very fabric of the writing provides one of the excitements of fiction.
As has been mentioned, the dialogue in this novel is fulsome, at times lecture-like, in what are otherwise domestic or professional contexts. The slightest remark sets Bach off on paragraphs of speechifying. This takes time, slowing the pace of the action and the reading experience. Runcie is no stranger to snappy, active dialogue; his successful Grantchester series of novels (dramatised for TV) attest to that. Here the rationale for longer speeches is twofold. Partly historical – as we assume that in a pre-technological culture people spent more time talking than we do! And it is partly convention: the ‘literary’ novel, in 19th century style, ‘preaches’ to us, as an older character preaches to a younger character, an accepted fictional trope.
In contemporary Creative Writing parlance, this trope can morph into ‘telling’, rather than ‘showing’, and highlighting the role of exposition. This latter might be presenting ideas, giving background; providing ‘information’, shoe-horning in research, as much (if not more) for the benefit of the reader, rather than the character to whom it is addressed. In the main narrative, Runcie wears his research/knowledge well, seamlessly bringing another century to life. However, the dialogue, with its disquisitional relative languor, largely one-way, from Bach to Stefan, at times is an interruption of the intimacy and relationship which dialogue creates between characters. While this can be justified by the fact that Bach is the guru, and there is no doubt that his speeches make interesting reading, there are times when the reading dips out of the novel/drama proper, into another convention, that of nineteenth-century sermonising. For many readers, the accomplished ‘literary’ nature of the novel will not be affected. For some, though, the speech overload might risk disrupting the convincing realism of the main narrative.
It is worth remembering that the concept of ‘exposition’ has also entered musical vocabulary as the first part of a composition where the main thematic material appears — as in the opening section of a fugue. By sleight of meaning, therefore, Bach’s articulate articulations belong absolutely where they are, in Runcie’s impressive and demanding novel. Music was Bach’s faith, and he knew that, like words, music is framed by silence.
MICHELENE WANDOR is a playwright, poet, short story writer, reviewer, broadcaster, theatre historian and musician with degrees from Cambridge and Essex universities and from Trinity College / University of London. She has taught in Britain at the Guildhall School of Drama, London, the City Lit, London, London Metropolitan University and at various universities abroad. She held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship from 2004 to 2008. Recipient of many awards and nominations, particularly for her radio dramatisations (see her ‘Dramatising Mrs Dalloway’ in the Fortnightly). Michelene Wandor is also an accomplished musician, performing Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. Her latest poetry collection is Travellers (Arc Publications 2021).