Johann Pachelbel

1653 1706

Johann Pachelbel

Composer

Biography

In 1673 Pachelbel moved to Vienna to work as organist for the Saint Stephen Cathedral. He lived there and delved further into Italian music, until 1677, when he moved to Eisenach to fulfill the role of court organist. While there he met Johann Ambrosius Bach, the father ofJohann Sebastian Bach. He became close with their family and mentored several of Johann Ambrosius’s children. Although Pachelbel left before the birth of Johann Sebastian in 1685, his lifelong friendship with the family caused him to return many times, and eventually he began giving lessons to Johann Sebastian.

Pachelbel married for the first time in 1681. His wife, Barbara Gabler, had one son in 1683 but they both tragically died the same year when a terrible plague hit Erfurt. Devastated, Pachelbel wrote several choral variations during this time calledMusicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (1683), which translates to “musical thoughts on death.” However, Pachelbel recovered from his morbid phase, remarrying the following year and having seven more children.

Having moved from church to church every few years up until this point, it is likely that Pachelbel was relieved to receive an offer for a permanent position as organist from none other than the St. Sebaldus Church in his native Nuremberg. Pachelbel happily accepted his offer, quitting his current appointment in Gotha and traveling almost immediately back to Nuremberg with his family. One of his first acts upon returning was to compose hisMagnificat fugues (1696), a collection which at the time was one of the largest collections of fugues written.Magnificat showed Pachelbel’s mastery of contrapuntal writing as well as a deft touch with compositional techniques such as augmentation and inversion.

By this time Pachelbel had become a well-recognized composer in his own right. Although he was most famous for his liturgical organ and vocal works, he also wrote secular works, and was considered a great masters of the genres of toccata, fugue and chaconne. Most of his strongest pieces employed some form of continuous variation or repetition. For example, his D minor chaconne for organ has a continuous and unchanged bassline throughout, while many of his twenty surviving toccatas are built around a single motif. Of course, Pachelbel’s most famous work,Canon and Gigue for three violins and basso continuo (colloquially known asPachelbel’s Canon or Canon in D), also falls under this category. The piece, which features a rigidly unchanging two-bar ostinato in the continuo voice, is accompanied by a similarly strict canon in the upper voices, with two-bar sections going through a total of 28 variations. Today the piece is immensely popular and one of the most widely recognized works of music from the Baroque era. A large part of its attractiveness to performers even today is the relative ease with which it can be arranged and played: on the violin the range rarely goes above third position, making it appealing to beginners.

Johann Pachelbel was an extremely progressive composer from the Baroque era. He was known during his time as a virtuoso organ player and figure within Protestant music, although nowadays he is remembered mainly for hisCanon in D major, written for three violins and continuo.

Born in Nuremberg to Johann Hans Pachelbel and Anna Maria Mair, Pachelbel was quickly recognized as a prodigious talent, not just in music but several academic disciplines as well. His parents arranged for him to study with prominent organist Georg Caspar Wecker while he was still in high school, and then to attend the University of Altdorf, but unfortunately he was unable to afford the tuition fees there and could not complete his studies.

Shortly after leaving University, Pachelbel assumed his first professional position as organist of the St. Lorenz Church. With the extra money as well as a hefty scholarship, he was able to attend the Gymnasium Poeticum at Regensburg to complete his education, as well as study privately under Kaspar Prentz, who introduced him to contemporary Italian music, a subject which would continue to interest him for the remainder of his life.

During Pachelbel’s own lifetime, his Canon, and indeed his chamber works in general, where seen as a relatively minor part of his output. Far more important was his collection of sacred vocal music, which range from a cappella voice with accompaniment to full choir. These works include both homophonic and polyphonic sections, often slipping in between one and the other with practiced ease. Like all of his works, Pachelbel’s vocal repertoire demonstrates a propensity towards imitative and variation-based development, and general simplicity of form. At the time, many commented on the lyrical nature of his compositions, by which they meant not that he wrote in a legato style but that his melodic phrases breathed and developed in a natural way.

Since his death, there has been a large issue with proper credit for Pachelbel’s music. Although there are over 500 compositions bearing his name, it is likely that many of them are falsely attributed. During his lifetime there were several sources of confusion, including the fact that many of Pachelbel’s students sought to imitate him as closely as possible and that he would often also go by the name Bachelbel. Although none of his nearly 100 fugues and 40 large-scale works have achieved the popularity of hisCanon in D, the continued prominence of his name has practically ensured that his music will live on in the concert halls, a rare feat for any composer prior to Bach.

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