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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Johann Pachelbel: Beyond the Canon

I’d like you to start by taking a few moments to listen to this.

This music was written by a composer who these days is regarded as a "one-hit wonder", a composer remembered today for a single piece. This isn't that piece.

The composer of this delightful music was Johann Pachelbel, today remembered for his three-part Canon over a ground bass. Perceptions of Pachelbel today are that he wasn't very good, that he only wrote one decent piece, and we're even sick of that one. In this post I want to dispel these myths by looking at Pachelbel's life and surveying some of his music. Needless to say, Pachelbel wrote a lot of very fine music, and the famous Canon - for all its familiarity today - is usually played in a manner completely at odds with the composer's intentions. But more on that particular bugbear later.

Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg, one of the free imperial German cities and a major musical centre in the mid-17th century. It was famous in particular for its composers, its instrument makers, and its music printing. Pachelbel was baptised on 1 September 1653 so it's assumed he was born a day or two before. His father, Johann Hans Pachelbel, was a wine dealer; his mother was Anna Maria Pachelbel, née Mair, Johann Hans Pachelbel's second wife.

As a boy Johann junior showed evidence of high intelligence coupled with an exceptional musical aptitude. In addition to his regular schooling, his parents saw to it that he studied with two of Nuremberg's leading musicians, Heinrich Schwimmer and Georg Caspar Wecker. He also attended public lectures to enhance his broad education and experience.

In June 1669 - when he was only 15 - he enrolled in the university at nearby Altdorf (about 30 km away), and around the same time he was appointed organist at the church of St Lorenz in Altdorf. Sadly, though, because of financial constraints, he had to leave the university less than a year after starting. In 1670 he moved to Regensburg, another 80 km to the south east, to complete his education at the Gymnasium Poeticum. His superior abilities led the school authorities to accept him as a scholarship student over and above the school's normal quota. While in Regensburg he studied music outside the school with Kaspar Prentz, himself a student of the famous composer and organist Johann Kaspar Kerll. In all likelihood Prentz exposed Pachelbel to the most recent trends in not only German, but also Italian, music.

As is usual with composers of this period, Pachelbel's music is notoriously hard to date, and his earliest securely datable works come from 1679. But certainly one of Pachelbel's earliest keyboard works is undoubtedly this Ricercar in C major. [listen]

It was on his skills an organist that Pachelbel's fame rested during his lifetime. He rapidly became known as one of southern Germany's finest organist and church composers, even at a relatively early age, and his legacy of organ music is staggering. Some 250 separate pieces are known today; many more have undoubtedly been lost.

Two years into his study with Prentz in Regensburg, Pachelbel found himself without a teacher when Prentz moved on. The following year, 1673, Pachelbel went to Vienna. This was much further afield in terms of distance - some 400 km from Regensburg - and also in terms of religion. Raised a Lutheran, Pachelbel now found himself in Catholic Vienna. Prentz in all likelihood encouraged his student to explore Catholic music and Vienna was the German-speaking centre for that.

Pachelbel's Lutheranism though seems to have been no barrier to him in the Austrian capital. Before long he was appointed deputy organist at St Stephen's Cathedral and in all he stayed in Vienna for five years. Here he would have learned a great deal about music of all sorts - organ music, chamber music, vocal music - and it's clear from his later works that all these influences, particularly those of Italy, enriched his art as a composer. The most important composer in Vienna at the time was Johann Caspar Kerll, but there is no direct evidence that Pachelbel was Kerll's pupil. Still, he would have been exposed to Kerll's music and learned from that at the very least.

Johann Caspar Kerll (1695)

The Italian influence in Pachelbel's music is evident in his flamboyant keyboard toccatas and fantasias. Apart from the Canon, Pachelbel is remembered today as a composer of organ music; the secular keyboard works are tragically largely forgotten. Here the influence of Johann Jakob Froberger, who studied with the Italian master Girolamo Frescobaldi, is particularly evident. [listen]

After five years in Catholic Vienna, Pachelbel then moved back to the centre of Protestant Germany, to Eisenach, more than 700 km to the northwest. Eisenach is largely remembered today as the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, but when Pachelbel got there, in 1677 (eight years before JS Bach's birth), it was already the centre of "Bach country". We do well to remember that JS Bach was a member of the fourth or fifth generation of Bach musicians throughout this part of the world, and there were Bachs holding important church posts in many towns and cities of the region in Pachelbel's day.

Pachelbel took up the post of court organist in the court of Duke Johann-Georg I in Eisenach. His immediate superior in the music establishment there was the Kapellmeister, Daniel Eberlin, and while in Eisenach Pachelbel became good friends with Johann Ambrosius Bach, JS Bach's father.

Johann Ambrosius Bach (1685)

Circumstances conspired against Pachelbel in Eisenach, though. The death of the Duke's brother meant that musical activity was largely shut down as the court entered a long period of mourning. With nothing to do, Pachelbel ended up largely unemployed and he left Eisenach in 1678, barely a year after his arrival.

Pachelbel had no firm job to go to, but Eberlin wrote him an extraordinary general reference to take with him. In it Eberlin described the 24 year old Pachelbel as einen perfecten und rare Virtuosen - a perfect and rare virtuoso. Works such as Pachelbel's E minor Toccata bear this out. [listen]

It didn't take someone as talented and as industrious as Pachelbel long to find himself another job after he left Eisenach. Armed with Eberlin's reference and an increasing folio of fine music of his own he had much to recommend him. But even taking all that into account it's stunning to note that the contract for his next job is dated only a month after his departure from Eisenach.

The new job was in Erfurt, another town later strongly associated with JS Bach, and which again in Pachelbel's day was in the centre of "Bach country". 60 km to the east Eisenach, Erfurt was to be Pachelbel's home for the next 12 years. He was appointed organist at the Predigerkirche, and the terms of his contract are fascinating.

Predigerkirche, Erfurt

The organist was required to introduce the singing of each hymn with an organ prelude based on the melody of the hymn to follow. This prelude was strictly stipulated to be pre-composed and not improvised, and once the hymn started he was to accompany every verse as well.

This requirement to compose chorale preludes for every hymn explains the prevalence of chorale preludes in Pachelbel's surviving organ music. Furthermore, they are of a very high quality, thoughtfully and skilfully working the familiar hymn tunes in whole or in part in a variety of different ways. They influenced generations of German organists, not the least of whom was JS Bach himself.

Pachelbel's 75 chorale preludes take a number of different forms. Some are simple two-part pieces, others are beautifully ornamented versions of the hymn tunes, and others take part of the hymn melody and use it as the subject for a fugue. In all the chorale preludes Pachelbel's skill as a thoughtful and dedicated musician is evident. There is rarely any overt showiness to these pieces - that would be contrary to their liturgical use - but they are still glorious, superbly crafted miniatures.

The chorale preludes are central to Pachelbel's output so I'll share three examples of them here. The first is a relatively straightforward treatment of Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verdebt. In this Pachelbel writes in a two-part style called a bicinia. The chorale melody is heard at the top, under which a single accompanying line moves floridly about. [listen]

The following treatment of Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ is one encountered in many of Pachelbel's chorale preludes. The accompaniment takes fragments of the hymn tune and uses them for a more complex imitative support to the melody itself, which is played in long notes over the top. [listen]

A form of chorale prelude which Pachelbel himself developed was the so-called "combination" form. In this there are two sections. A opening prelude in the form of a fugue is based on a fragment of the hymn tune, after which the second section employs the entire hymn tune played in long notes either over or under the texture. This treatment of the Christmas hymn Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich is an example. [listen]

In Erfurt Pachelbel continued and developed his connections with the Bach family. He was godfather to Johann Ambrosius Bach's daughter, Johanna Juditha (JS Bach's sister), and he also taught Ambrosius's son Johann Christoph (JS Bach's elder brother, who later became the famous Bach's teacher).

Another requirement of Pachelbel's contract in Erfurt was to re-audition for his job every year. This daunting requirement called for him to compose a new major work to perform in a recital each year after the Vesper service on St John the Baptist's Day, 24 June. He was required to prove his continued development as a musician by making every year's new work more advanced and highly-developed than the previous year. Successfully undergoing this requirement for 12 years is probably what propelled Pachelbel into the ranks of Germany's leading organists. He never failed to be reappointed.

The larger organ works in Pachelbel's output include large-scale variations on arias and chaconne basses. The F minor Chaconne is generally regarded as his finest organ work. [listen]

Pachelbel married not once but twice during his 12 years in Erfurt. He married Barbara Gabler in October 1681 but tragedy struck only two years later when both she and the couple's infant son died during an outbreak of plague in the town. Most commentators link this crisis with Pachelbel's decision to publish, around the same time, a collection called Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (Musical Thoughts on Dying). This publication consisted of four sets of chorale variations, major works for organ which - unlike the shorter choral preludes - are virtuosic sets of variations on chorale melodies, and in this case the chorales chosen are all connected in some way with death.

Ten months after the death of his wife and son Pachelbel married again. His second wife, Judith Drommer, bore him seven children: two daughters and five sons. Four of these children became famous in their own right. Wilhelm Hieronymous Pachelbel became a well-known composer and spent most of his career in Nuremberg. Charles Theodore Pachelbel established himself as a professional musician in the American colonies, while Johann Michael Pachelbel became an instrument maker in Nuremberg and is known to have performed in Jamaica. Finally, one of the daughters, Amalia, became well known for other artistic pursuits, famed for her work as a painter and engraver.

Pachelbel's twelve years in Erfurt were hugely successful but he eventually felt the need to move elsewhere and seek new challenges. In 1690 he sought to be released from his Erfurt contract, even with no firm job to go to, and this was granted. Less than two weeks later he had a new job, in Stuttgart, nearly 400 km southwest of Erfurt. He worked as an organist and general musician in the court of Duchess Magdalena Sibylla but in less than two years he had to flee the city because of an impending French invasion.

After a brief stay in Nuremberg he secured a new post in Gotha, mid-way between Erfurt and Eisenach and back in familiar territory. He worked as an organist in Gotha for two and half years from 1692. During this time he was offered two jobs - one back in Stuttgart and one at Oxford University in England - both of which he refused.

While he was in Gotha, Pachelbel received an invitation, along with other musicians, to provide music for the 1694 marriage of his former pupil Johann Christoph Bach in Ohrdruf. It's almost certain that Pachelbel accepted and attended the wedding, in which case he may very well have met Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christoph's brother, who was a talented nine year old at the time.

The organ works and the infamous Canon aside, the rest of Pachelbel's output is largely unknown and this is a tragedy. The chamber works are ravishing and brilliant. At the start of this post I linked to part of a collection of trio sonatas published in 1695 called Musicalische Ergötzung (Musical Delight); here's a little more. [listen]

In 1695 such was Pachelbel's reputation that he received an extraordinary job offer from his home city of Nuremberg. St Sebaldus' church, the most important church of its kind in Nuremberg, offered him the position of organist. The church authorities decided that if Pachelbel wanted the post he could have it, without going through any examination and before the post was offered to any of Nuremberg's other organists. This was a very unusual course of action and it was clear that Nuremberg wanted its famous organist home.

St Sebaldus' Church, Nuremberg

Pachelbel accepted and began work at St Sebaldus' in mid-1695. It was in this later part of his life that he composed his greatest and most spectacular music. St Sebaldus' celebrated Vespers in style, and Pachelbel's surviving works include no less than 13 settings of the Magnificat written for these occasions. That this music is virtually unknown today is the music world's loss. [listen]

While in Nuremberg in his final years, Pachelbel also produced a collection of keyboard variations called Hexachordum Apollinis (The Six Strings of Apollo). This was dedicated to his famous contemporary Dieterich Buxtehude and is regarded as one of Pachelbel's major works. [listen]

The other often-mentioned achievement of his time at St Sebaldus' is the composition of more than 90 fugues on the Magnificat, another major contribution to the organ repertoire. [listen] Pachelbel's late vocal music includes more intimate cantatas, other flamboyant and dazzling psalm settings and much else besides. I wish I could find a recording of his glorious setting of Psalm 150 online to share with you; it really is spectacular.

Pachelbel remained in Nuremberg for the rest of his life. He died there in the first week of March, 1706, at the age of 52. He was buried in St Rochus Cemetery on 9 March.

Pachelbel's tomb

Pachelbel's posthumous influence on the history of music was limited and despite his fame during his lifetime he was largely only remembered by organists in the years following his death. Eventually he was almost completely forgotten until the 20th century. The impetus for his rediscovery came in 1919 when the famous Canon was first published.

Around 1970 the French conductor Jean-François Paillard recorded the Canon with his chamber orchestra at an extraordinarily slow tempo. Herbert von Karajan recorded it around the same time and in the same manner. Its subsequent use in the 1980 film Ordinary People helped propel the piece into popular culture. Paillard's slow tempo became the accepted way of doing the piece, as did the inclusion of the pizzicato viola part, which is not by Pachelbel but included in an arrangement by Kistner and Siegel. [listen]

Played in this way, the Canon has become the poster child of the musical new age movement. Reissues of this recording and others like it are included in compilations called "Tranquillity of Baroque", "Pure Bliss" or "Music for Meditation". I hope, though, that you picked up that what you just heard then sounds nothing like everything else I've included in this post. Pachelbel certainly wrote the three canonic violin parts over the eight-note ground bass, but the style and tempo - not to mention the inauthentic pizzicato viola part - are completely at odds with what we now know about Pachelbel's era. Pachelbel's Canon isn't even an "adagio" in the sense we would think of it, and the earliest source dates from the 19th century.

Still, taken at face value and interpreted in the light of current views on performance practice - and compared with what we know of Pachelbel's other chamber music - the Canon (and its accompanying Gigue, which is often forgotten) is anything but morose, dowdy and languid. It's a technical tour-de-force of compositional skill and a piece requiring lightness and virtuosity from the three violinists. We'll end with a recording of Pachelbel's Canon which has much more the whiff of the 17th century about it. [listen]

Nuremberg Old Town

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2013.

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