Johann Pachelbel

(1653 - 1706)

German composer and organist. He studied music with Heinrich Schwemmer and G. C. Wecker, attended lectures at the Auditorium aegidianum and entered the university at Altdorf in 1669, where he also served as organist at the Lorenzkirche. He was forced to leave the university after less than a year owing to lack of funds, and became a scholarship student at the Gymnasium poeticum at Regensburg, taking private instruction under Kaspar Prentz. In 1673 Pachelbel went to Vienna and became deputy organist at St. Stephen's Cathedral; in 1677 he became organist in Thuringen at the Eisenach court, where he served for slightly over a year. . This was an important move, since it was here that he became a dose friend of the town’s most prominent musician, Johann Ambrosius Bach, the future father of Johann Sebastian, and his family.

In 1678, Pachelbel obtained the first of the two important positions he was to hold during his lifetime when he became organist at the Protestant Predigerkirche at Erfurt, where he established his reputation as organist, composer, and teacher. Erfurt was, of course, the ancestral home of the Bach family, and there he met Ambrosius' eldest son, Johann Christoph (the Ohrdruf Bach), whom he knew from Eisenach and who lived in Erfurt from 1686 to 1689. Pachelbel undertook the musical education of the young man who, not many years later, would teach his brother Johann Sebastian all he knew when the latter came to live with his family following the death of their parents.

Pachelbel started a family in Erfurt; after the early death of his first wife and their child, he remarried and produced a highly artistic household: of the couple's seven children, two would later become organists, including his eldest son Wilhelm Hieronymus who acted as Pachelbel's successor at Nuremberg for thirty-nine years, another son who became an instrument maker and a daughter who achieved recognition as a painter and engraver. Pachelbel left Erfurt some years later, apparently looking for a better appointment, musician and organist for the Wurttemberg court at Stuttgart (1690-92), and then in Gotha (1692-95), where he was town organist. His travels finally led him home when he was invited to succeed Wecker as organist of St. Sebald, Nuremberg, after his former teacher's death in 1695; he obtained his release from Gotha that same year and remained at St. Sebald until his death. He died in the first months of 1706 at the young age of 52.

Johann Pachelbel was one of the dominant figures of late seventeenth-century European keyboard music. An exact contemporary of Georg Muffat he belonged to the generation that included German composers Böhm, Bruhns and Fischer, French composers Raison, Jullien and François Couperin, and the Englishman Purcell, and that came chronologically between Buxtehude and Bach.

The young Johann Sebastian Bach, at the time on his way back from Lübeck, probably never met him. Perhaps it is because he was already familiar with the work of Pachelbel, which was well-known throughout central Germany, that he chose Buxtehude as his mentor. Many of Pachelbel's students, in particular, had actively transmitted his inimitable art of chorale variation, including Johann Christoph Bach who doubtless passed the knowledge on to his younger brother. Another important link in the chain is Johann Gottfried Walther, a contemporary and cousin of Bach who was his colleague in Weimar. Walther was born in Erfurt during Pachelbel's stay and studied with several students of the master, and then in Nuremberg with Pachelbel's son, which made him a worthy disciple of the master of St. Sebald. Walther also studied with Werckmeister, a friend of Buxtehude, and played a pivotal role in the transmission of the German organ repertoire to future generations, which was effected mainly through oral tradition and manuscript copies of unpublished works.

Pachelbel, like many of this foremost contemporaries, was somehow able to combine his professional activities as a church musician, secular musician and teacher, not to mention his responsibilities as the father of a large family, with his activities as a composer. in keeping with the customs of the time, he published only a small number of his compositions, since copper engraving was an expensive process and published works had to have some special feature to make them attractive to prospective purchasers. First, in Erfurt, he brought out a small collection of four chorales with variations in 1683, which he entitled Musicaliscbe Sterbensgedancken (Musical Thoughts on Death; next, in Nuremberg, six Sonatas for two violins and bass, and the collection Musicalissche Eigötzung (Musical Rejoicing, circa 1691), eight chorale preludes, Acht Choräle zum Praeambulieren in 1693, and lastly, in 1699, his master work, Hexachordum Apollinis, the Hexachord of Apollo, containing six Arias with variations in six different keys for harpsichord (or organ), including the famous Aria Sebaldina in F minor, and which includes a dedication to Buxtehude and his Vienna contemporary Ferdinand Tobias Richter.

Pachelbel's secular output consisted of around twenty harpsichord suites, sets of variations and various instrumental works. As a parish musician, though, the bulk of this work was written for church services, in particular Mass and Vespers, in which both singers and instrumentalists took part. Around twenty-six motets, nineteen spiritual songs, thirteen Magnificats, spiritual concerts and masses have survived. Like both Schütz and Buxtehude, Pachelbel liked to experiment with various instrumental configurations, from the smallest —voice, two violins and continuo—to the most grandiose. The spiritual concert Lobet den Herrn in seinem Heiligtum (Praise the Lord in his Sanctuary) is scored for five voices, two flutes, bassoon, five trumpets, trombone, drums, cymbals, harp, two violins, three violas, continuo and organ. However, it is Pachelbel's organ music that takes pride of place in his production, since the surviving corpus is one of the most extensive of the period: with some two hundred and fifty separate pieces it is, numerically, twice the size of Buxtehude's, and evidence of other lost works has been found.

Much of the organ music was intended for service use. It is important to remember that Luther's religious practice was articulated around two matching places of prayer: the church for the parish community, and the home for the family. Families came together each day around the head of the household to hold a domestic worship service that mirrored the Sunday service led by the Pastor. In both places chorales were sung, with their numerous verses that provided both instruction and a support for meditation. Any instrument, perhaps an oboe or a violin, could be used to give the starting note and support the voices. This is why the works of Pachelbel, and of many of his contemporaries, include chorale preludes that do not require the use of an organ with pedals and can be played on household keyboard instruments such as small virginals. in any case, church organs in central and southern Germany were seldom large. Like Frescobaldi and Bach, but unlike Buxtehude and Grigny, Pachelbel had access only to relatively small organs: twenty-seven stops on two manuals and pedal in Erfurt, a mere fourteen stops on two manuals and pedal at Nuremberg. Both were well-proportioned small instruments, although different in character. The reed chorus at Erfurt and the mixtures at Nuremberg, and the highly individual sounds they produced, act as a reminder that today's performers should aim, first, to extract the full character of the elegant, delicate melodic arches of Pachelbel's arias and chorales, rather than seek large-scale dynamic contrast.

Pachelbel's geographical situation, midway between Vienna and Lubeck, was mirrored in his musical situation, equally distant from the harmonic subtleties of Richter as from the passionate vehemence of Buxtehude. Through his music Pachelbel appears not as an eloquent orator but as a specialist in intimate confidences. Often drawn towards a soft and meditative style, Pachelbel was apparently satisfied with the limited resources provided by his small instruments and sought to cultivate neither the dramatic contrasts of the stylus phantasticus, the enticements of chromaticism nor excessive ornamentation. A born melodist, he directed his skills to the elaboration of subtle webs of counterpoint based on pure, almost stark lines, although his ingenuity is masked by the perfection of the writing that seems to flow unimpeded. Clearly, Pachelbel inherited the great southern tradition initiated by Frescobaldi and passed on by Kerll, Poglietti and Froberger.

Pachelbel's art found its fullest expression in his treatment of the chorale. He mastered all the forms current at the time for setting chorale melodies, and generally presented the chorale unadorned in a clearly recognizable form (the melismatic chorale was developed by Buxtehude and, especially, Bach). His seventy-five chorale preludes present a wide range of approaches, all designed to sustain musical interest. Although some pieces use the ancient two-voice bicinium technique, most are written in three or four voices; to meet the requirements of the liturgy, the chorale melody is usually heard unornamented in the soprano, or in long note-values as a cantus firmus. However, Pachelbel is never restricted by formula, and the melody sometimes moves to the tenor or the bass, or is enriched by a delicate ornamental mantle. The accompanying voices incorporate fragments of the chorale in augmentation or diminution, or sometimes in imitation, recalling the fugal style at the heart of Pachelbel's art; fugue, after all, amplifies and solemnizes the musical discourse by multiplying the appearances of a single motif. Each phrase of the chorale is thus introduced by a short fugato, or a preceded by a fugal preamble. Above all, Pachelbel was drawn to composite structures, where all the resources of his musical language could be used to illustrate the spiritual atmosphere of the chorale: sorrowful chromaticism, passing dissonance, delicate arabesque-like figures or expressive rhythmical formulae. His variations on chorale melodies clearly served as a model for the young Bach in his organ partitas.

Pachelbel's organ fugues and ricercares reflect the growing interest of Baroque musicians in the learned world of dialogue and formal elaboration, and their tendency to underline the theatrical aspect of the musical discourse through the development of a single underlying motif, the "subject" — at a time when, following the work of Descartes, the focus was on the complexity of the "thinking subject." In his three ricercares, Pachelbel provides an impressive demonstration of his compositional skill, applied with more freedom in his fugues, which include twenty-six isolated fugues and no less than ninety-five fugues on the Magnificat (in fact, these fugues were for use with the German Magnificat, or were based on free themes, rather than on the actual themes of the Magnificat). They create a marvelous world of sound and poetry and display Pachelbel's never-failing powers of invention. Although the composer was probably not aware of it, his fugue subjects define the various elements of his character and constitute the fragments of a musical self-portrait that reveals a melancholy side to his nature that sometimes tends, towards pathos.

Two sons, Carl and Wilhelm Hieronymus were also organists and composer, the former emigrating to the New World and dyimg in Charleston, S.C.

A Partial Johann Pachelbel Discography  |  VIB: Clavier, Organ and Lute in the German Baroque  |  VIE: The Ensemble Suite