The Great Passion
I have just written a play about how Bach's St Mathew Passion was written, composed, rehearsed and performed in the build-up to its first performance in Leipzig on Good Friday 1727. It was broadcast on Easter Saturday 2017 on BBC Radio 4.
"Written by James Runcie, Radio 4 Arts commissioning editor, this involving drama explores the genesis of Bach's St Matthew Passion, following the tense rehearsal period preceding its first performance in Leipzig on Good Friday 1727. Simon Russell Beale is compelling as the composer who puts huge pressure on his young choristers ¬ asking them to sing as if their own salvation depended on it ¬ but even more on himself. Glorious music is provided by the Dunedin Consort and choristers of St Mary's Music School with the play also acting as a helpful master class on how to get the most out of this magnificent work." Stephanie Billen, The Observer.
"This was a perfect example of 'slow radio' ... To appreciate it, you need the time and space to listen slowly, not expecting to be moved by the storyline but by the thoughts provoked by what Bach has just said. 'If we don't confront our darkest fears they will haunt us till we die.'" Kate Chisholm. The Spectator.
This is now becoming a novel.
The novel will be structured like The Goldberg Variations. There will be thirty-two chapters with the same idea of a repeated aria at the beginning and the end – in this case, the arrival and departure on a cart. Its fugue form will contain four main themes together with variations within each:
The Musical Life. This is the story of a practical man, a working musician, rather than the artist as God. The novel goes backstage and right to the heart of both the composition and rehearsal process to reveal all the tension and argument, the complications, setbacks and reversals before the first performance of the work Bach himself was to refer to as The Great Passion.
People might tend to think of him as an old man but at this stage in his life Bach was in his early forties, his librettist was only twenty-seven, and he had four children with another nine still to come. The demand for music was such that every Sunday was a new deadline, he was always worried about his position, and any one of his children, in such a febrile climate, could die at any minute.
So this is not a precious story about divine inspiration but an unpredictable account of a group of young and ambitious working musicians trying to find their voices, as they discover who they are, what they want to say and how best to say (and play) it.
Family Life is also at the heart of the story. Bach's home is in the school and next to the Church. There is no escape from work. His wife Anna Magdalena writes out the scores and is pregnant with her second child (which she miscarries in the course of the novel and nearly dies): all his children are employed as musicians and copyists.
Bach is also in continual dispute with the Town Council (his actual employer) about how much he is paid, the weakness of the musical forces at his disposal, and the possible conspiracy against him by rivals who disapprove of his arrogance and his operatic tendencies. The villain of the piece is Johann Gottlieb Görner, organist at the rival Paulinerkirche, and director of music at the University of Leipzig. This account of Bach's secular life, his competitiveness, jealousy and paranoia (he was the only applicant to be Cantor without a university education) is a further counterpoint to:
The religious life. Bach contemplates the essential Christian dilemma: why does a loving God allow people to suffer? What is the nature of sorrow? He talks to his confessor, the Rector of the Thomasschule, Johan Heinrich Ernesti, who is seventy-five and close to death, about the fact of suffering (Bach's wife died seven years ago and he has already lost two children), the nature of faith and how hard it is to find comfort and redemption. Can faith in God give Bach faith in himself?
These four themes interweave through the novel. As a result, the book will combine dramatic storytelling with the quest for meaning.
In short, it's about the nature of ambition and the desire to work as hard as you possibly can in the attempt to live a life that's worthwhile. It is about standards, deadlines, belief, passion and desire; and it confronts, head-on, the elemental human question of how to live and why we have to die.
This story starts at the funeral of Johan Sebastian Bach in the Johanniskirche in Leipzig, shortly after 8.15 p.m. on 31st July 1750. Stefan Meissner is singing Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen, Slumber, my weary eyes, from Bach's Cantata 82 – Ich habe genug.
Twenty-three years ago Stefan was a choirboy in the first performance of The St Matthew Passion. Now, as Bach's body is unloaded from the cart for burial, he remembers the great man's arrival in the town on a very different cart, loaded with possessions, behind a carriage containing a wife and four young children, in the early summer of 1723.
The novel is Stefan's account of what happened over the next four years; and how one of the greatest pieces of music ever written came into existence.