There’s a saying you might have heard: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Fortunately, two authors—one veteran, the other new to fiction—have ignored this warning and written novels about classical music, and we readers are luckier for it.
The Great Passion by James Runcie, author of the acclaimed Grantchester Mysteries, is a beautiful coming-of-age novel set in 18th-century Germany. In 1726, 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann is mourning the death of his mother. His father makes arrangements for Stefan to attend a music school in Leipzig, an especially useful education for a boy whose family’s business is building and repairing church organs. At school, lonely Stefan is tormented by the other students, finding solace only in singing and in the presence of the demanding but empathic choir director, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Stefan’s heavenly singing voice and sensitivity endear him to Bach, who enlists Stefan as a soloist in many of his cantatas. But Stefan remains deeply unhappy, and when he runs away from the dorms, Bach invites him to live at the Bach family home. There, Stefan basks in the warmth of domestic life, assisting Bach’s children with chores and working as a copyist for the great composer.
When another tragedy strikes, this time in Bach’s family, Stefan is a firsthand witness to the way grief can be a catalyst for musical genius, watching and then performing in the work that will become one of Bach’s most celebrated compositions, “The Passion According to St Matthew.” Stefan’s exposure to Bach’s creativity, family and devotion to God is the restorative balm that the young man needs in order to move forward with his life.
On the other end of the spectrum is Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, a fast-paced thriller about a young Black violinist and his search for a priceless instrument, set against the backdrop of systemic racism within the world of contemporary classical music.
Ray McMillian has a dream of becoming a concert violinist, and nothing will stand in his way: not his unsupportive mother and uncles, his disinterested teachers or the industry’s inherent racial bias. When Ray’s beloved grandmother gifts him with her grandfather’s violin, it brings him a step closer to his dream, and when the instrument is revealed to be an extremely rare and valuable Stradivarius, his star really begins to rise.
Ray is on the verge of attending the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when the prized instrument is stolen and held for ransom. Suspects range from members of Ray’s own family, eager to claim the insurance money, to his musical rivals in Europe. Even the descendants of the family who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather are claiming the instrument belongs to them. As Ray travels the globe, not sure whom he can trust, music remains the only constant in his life, supporting him no matter the situation.
Despite their differences in literary styles, locations and eras, these novels are connected by more than just their musical themes. Resilience is a powerful presence in both stories, whether in the face of personal pain and grief or against the constant pressures of embedded prejudices. Music is the conduit through which two young men learn to overcome loss and fight against insurmountable odds, offering not only a reason to live but also a way to thrive.