German composer Johann Sebastian Bach is considered one of the greatest of all time, and his sacred oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, a masterpiece.
But when Bach arrived in Leipzig, Germany, where he wrote the St. Matthew Passion in 1727, he was best known as an organist, not a composer. He led the music of a boys’ choir in Leipzig, where he lived with his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and many children from both marriages.
It is in this mixture of demanding work and lively home that James Runcie sets his new novel, The great passion. Told by a fictional 13-year-old student, it imagines Bach over the course of a year as an ambitious, passionate musician and father, navigating heartbreak and professional rivalries – through faith, love and the transcendence of music.
Runcie is also the author of the Grantchester Mysteries, which is the inspiration for the popular television drama Grantchester. The central character – an Anglican priest turned amateur sleuth – was partly inspired by his father, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Runcie spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from near St. Andrews, Scotland.
A constant presence
“Bach is not just the musical foundation of my life, but the spiritual foundation, the sacred foundation, all that is good in life. And I think there is something infinitely reassuring about his music. She is both capable of transmitting a kind of mathematical purity but also a deep passion.
“I don’t know how he does it. My work is an investigation of how he manages to be so rational and yet so emotional at the same time.
Bach was the very foundation of our family, both religiously and musically.
“It’s almost as if his music was always with me because my mother was a piano teacher. She was playing Bach before I could speak.
“My mother used to play The Well-Tempered Clavier as a way to relax most mornings. My father was a priest, so Bach’s music was sung. My mother sang in the Bach choir — my sister still does. Obviously there’s Mozart and Beethoven – and many, many other composers – but Bach was the very foundation of our family, both religiously and musically.”
Like father, like son
“Growing up in a vicarage was quite weird I have to say, but of course I didn’t think it was weird. We lived in a small village, just a few hundred people, outside of Oxford. The Death came to the door. For me, it has become normal to have people’s emotions on full display in a rather raw way.
“It was a world where birth, love, death, the passage of time and the rituals of daily life were very observed and very intense. There was quite a bit of music, love and death.
“There were expectations to behave well, yes, of course. Generally, clergy children get into terrible trouble because they rebel very badly and totally go off the rails – or they are bullied and try to be at the height of their father’s reputation. There’s pressure to be good and, to use my father’s expression, “not to give up”. So you have to be as good as you can be. And there are times where you think, “Actually, I’m not going to do that. I will rebel here.”
The clergy children are in terrible trouble because they are seriously rebelling and totally going off the rails – or being bullied and trying to live up to their father’s reputation.
“It makes you competitive because you see your dad being beloved and being a showman. There’s a very thin line between theater and clergy. There’s a theatrics to preaching, to giving a speech, to to disguise oneself.
“So in a way, showbiz, which I ridiculously think I’m a part of, is the secular version of being a priest, in the sense that you want to look your best and bring out the best in other people.”
A family orchestra
“For Bach, the secret of domestic harmony was musical harmony. He believed that everyone should play together. He wrote a famous letter about having enough children to form both a instrumental and vocal ensemble from his own family.As a father, we know that he was devoted, demanding and affectionate.
My way of picturing him is like that father in a house where it’s very hard to be alone – except when you were in your study composing music.
“He wrote huge endorsements for his children, and we know he was quite a rival to his most brilliant musical son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who later worked with Frederick the Great.
“My way of imagining Bach is like this father in a house in which it is very difficult to be alone – except when you were in your study composing music.”
Inspired by the clergy
“I wanted to do a series about post-war Britain with a sort of moral force behind it. I came up with the idea of a clergyman, rather than, say, a lawyer like in Bailey’s Rumpoleor a doctor as in Doctor. Finlay’s Casebook. So I created a character, Sydney Chambers, who is and isn’t my father.
“The ‘isn’t’ is that he’s not a detective, and the ‘isn’t’ is also that he’s part me. In fact, he looks a lot like me .have a daughter who is no different from my youngest daughter.
“In The road to Grantchester, I wanted to think about the journey of faith and how someone is able to believe in the middle of war – in the middle of World War II.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side stood up in World War I and said, ‘There is no God. There can be no God to allow this. While my father [in the Second World War] thought, ‘How can life get any better than this? How can there be redemption? How can there be any kind of hope? How can we prevent this from happening again?
“Bach seemed to be from another era and it required a different sensibility – or for time to pass. Now people love Bach’s music partly because it’s so orderly and so beautiful. Lives get messy, the longer we wait for Bach’s order, we yearn for a sense of structure, a sense of comfort.
“It’s like his music was created before we were born and will live on after we die. There’s a kind of sense of eternity. It feels like it could go on forever. It’s a big partisan of variation – you have a theme and you vary it and play on it.
People love Bach’s music partly because it’s so orderly and beautiful. I sometimes think that the messier our lives become, the more we yearn for Bach’s order.
“It seems to be this inexhaustible variety, which is a comparison of life itself – that you can live your life, but you can have endless variations of it.”
James Runcie’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.