Johann Pachelbel (baptized September 1, 1653 – buried March 9, 1706) was a German composer, organist, and teacher who brought the south German organ tradition to its peak, composing a large body of sacred and secular music, and his contributions to the development of the chorale prelude and fugue have earned him a place among the most important composers of the middle Baroque era. Pachelbel was born in 1653 in Nuremberg into a middle-class family, son of Johann (Hans) Pachelbel (born 1613 in Wunsiedel, Germany), a wine dealer, and his second wife Anna (Anne) Maria Mair. The exact date of Johann’s birth is unknown, but since he was baptized on September 1, he may have been born in late August.
During his early youth, Pachelbel received musical training from Heinrich Schwemmer, a musician and music teacher who later became the cantor of St. Sebaldus Church (Sebalduskirche). Some sources indicate that Pachelbel also studied with Georg Caspar Wecker, organist of the same church and an important composer of the Nuremberg school, but this is now considered unlikely. In any case, both Wecker and Schwemmer were trained by Johann Erasmus Kindermann, one of the founders of the Nuremberg musical tradition, who had been at one time a pupil of Johann Staden. The young Pachelbel demonstrated exceptional musical and academic abilities. He received his primary education in St. Lorenz Hauptschule and the Auditorio Aegediano in Nuremberg, then on 29 June 1669 he became a student at the University of Altdorf, where he was also appointed organist of St. Lorenz church the same year.
Pachelbel did not come from a wealthy family and earned meager sums serving as organist at the Lorenzkirche. He thus could not garner enough money to keep up with the tuition costs at the university and financial difficulties forced Pachelbel to leave the university after less than a year. In order to complete his studies he became a scholarship student, in 1670, at the Gymnasium Poeticum at Regensburg. The school authorities were so impressed by Pachelbel’s academic qualifications that he was admitted above the school’s normal quota. Pachelbel was also permitted to study music privately outside the Gymnasium. His teacher was Kaspar (Caspar) Prentz, once a student of Johann Kaspar Kerll. Since the latter was greatly influenced by Italian composers such as Giacomo Carissimi, it is likely through Prentz that Pachelbel started developing an interest in contemporary Italian music, and Catholic church music in general.
Prentz left for Eichstätt in 1672. This period of Pachelbel’s life is the least documented one, so it is unknown whether he stayed in Regensburg until 1673 or left the same year his teacher did; at any rate, by 1673 Pachelbel was living in Vienna, where he became a deputy organist at the famous Saint Stephen Cathedral (Stephansdom). At the time, Vienna was the center of the vast Habsburg empire and had much cultural importance; its tastes in music were predominantly Italian. Several renowned cosmopolitan composers worked there, many of them contributing to the exchange of musical traditions in Europe. In particular, Johann Jakob Froberger served as court organist in Vienna until 1657 and was succeeded by Alessandro Poglietti. Georg Muffat lived in the city for some time, and, most importantly, Johann Kaspar Kerll moved to Vienna in 1673. While there, he may have known or even taught Pachelbel, whose music shows traces of Kerll’s style. Pachelbel spent five years in Vienna, absorbing the music of Catholic composers from southern Germany and Italy. In some respects, Pachelbel is similar to Haydn, who too served as a professional musician of the Stephansdom in his youth and as such was exposed to music of the leading composers of the time.
In 1677, Pachelbel moved to Eisenach, where he found employment as court organist under Kapellmeister Daniel Eberlin (also a native of Nuremberg), in the employ of Johann Georg I, Duke of Saxe-Eisenach. He met members of the Bach family in Eisenach (which was the home city of J. S. Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach), and became a close friend of Johann Ambrosius and tutor to his children. However, Pachelbel spent only one year in Eisenach. In 1678, Bernhard II, Duke of Saxe-Jena, Johann Georg’s brother, died and during the period of mourning court musicians were greatly curtailed. Pachelbel was left unemployed. He requested a testimonial from Eberlin, who wrote one for him, describing Pachelbel as a “perfect and rare virtuoso.” With this document, Pachelbel left Eisenach on May 18, 1678.
In June 1678, Pachelbel was employed as organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt, succeeding Johann Effler (c. 1640–1711). Effler later preceded Johann Sebastian Bach in Weimar. The Bach family was very well known in Erfurt (where virtually all organists would later be called “Bachs”), so Pachelbel’s friendship with them continued here. Pachelbel became godfather to Johann Ambrosius’ daughter, Johanna Juditha, taught Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), Johann Sebastian’s eldest brother, and lived in Johann Christian Bach’s (1640–1682) house. Pachelbel remained in Erfurt for 12 years and established his reputation as one of the leading German organ composers of the time during his stay. The chorale prelude became one of his most characteristic products of the Erfurt period, since Pachelbel’s contract specifically required him to compose the preludes for church services. His duties also included organ maintenance and, more importantly, composing a large-scale work every year to demonstrate his progress as composer and organist, as every work of that kind had to be better than the one composed the year before.
Johann Christian Bach (1640–1682), Pachelbel’s landlord in Erfurt, died in 1682. In June 1684, Pachelbel purchased the house (called Zur silbernen Tasche, now Junkersand 1) from Johann Christian’s widow. In 1686, he was offered a position as organist of the St. Trinitatis church (Trinitatiskirche) in Sondershausen. Pachelbel initially accepted the invitation but, as a surviving autograph letter indicates, had to reject the offer after a long series of negotiations: it appears that he was required to consult with Erfurt’s elders and church authorities before considering any job offers. It seems that the situation had been resolved quietly and without harm to Pachelbel’s reputation; he was offered a raise and stayed in the city for four more years. Pachelbel married twice during his stay in Erfurt. Barbara Gabler, daughter of the Stadt-Major of Erfurt, became his first wife, on October 25, 1681. The marriage took place in the house of the bride’s father. Unfortunately, both Barbara and their only son died in October 1683 during a plague. Pachelbel’s first published work, a set of chorale variations called Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (“Musical Thoughts on Death”, Erfurt, 1683), was probably influenced by this event.
Ten months later, Pachelbel married Judith Drommer (Trummert), daughter of a coppersmith, on August 24, 1684. They had five sons and two daughters. Two of the sons, Wilhelm Hieronymus Pachelbel and Charles Theodore Pachelbel, also became organ composers; the latter moved to the American colonies in 1734. Another son, Johann Michael, became an instrument maker in Nuremberg and traveled as far as London and Jamaica. One of the daughters, Amalia Pachelbel, achieved recognition as a painter and engraver. Although Pachelbel was an outstandingly successful organist, composer, and teacher at Erfurt, he asked permission to leave, apparently seeking a better appointment, and was formally released on August 15, 1690, bearing a testimonial praising his diligence and fidelity.
Pachelbel was employed in less than a fortnight: from September 1, 1690, he was a musician-organist in the Württemberg court at Stuttgart under the patronage of Duchess Magdalena Sibylla. That job was better, but, unfortunately, he lived there only two years before fleeing the French attacks of the War of the Grand Alliance. His next job was in Gotha as the town organist, a post he occupied for two years, starting on November 8, 1692; there he published his first, and only, liturgical music collection: Acht Chorale zum Praeambulieren in 1693 (Erster Theil etlicher Choräle). When former pupil Johann Christoph Bach married in October 1694, the Bach family celebrated the marriage on October 23, 1694 in Ohrdruf, and invited him and other composers to provide the music; he probably attended – if so, it was the only time J.S. Bach, then nine years old, met Johann Pachelbel.
In his three years in Gotha, Pachelbel was twice offered positions, in Stuttgart and at Oxford University; he declined both. Meanwhile, in Nuremberg, when the St. Sebaldus Church organist Georg Caspar Wecker (and his possible former teacher) died on 20 April 1695, the city authorities were so anxious to appoint Pachelbel (then a famous Nuremberger) to the position that they officially invited him to assume it without holding the usual job examination or inviting applications from prominent organists from lesser churches. He accepted, was released from Gotha in 1695, and arrived in Nuremberg in summer, with the city council paying his per diem expenses. Pachelbel lived the rest of his life in Nuremberg, during which he published his most famous vocal scores, the chamber music collection Musicalische Ergötzung, and, most importantly, the Hexachordum Apollinis (Nuremberg, 1699), a set of six keyboard arias with variations. Though most influenced by Italian and southern German composers, he knew the northern German school, because he dedicated the Hexachordum Apollinis to Dieterich Buxtehude. Also composed in the final years were Italian-influenced concertato Vespers and a set of more than ninety Magnificat fugues.
Johann Pachelbel died at the age of 52, in early March 1706, and was buried on March 9. Mattheson cites either March 3 or March 7, 1706 as the death date. It is unlikely that the corpse was allowed to linger unburied as long as six days. Contemporary custom was to bury the dead on the third or fourth post-mortem day; so, either March 6 or 7, 1706 is a likelier death date He is buried in the St. Rochus Cemetery. Pachelbel’s music enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime; he had many pupils and his music became a model for the composers of south and central Germany. Pachelbel was known for his works for organ, and was considered one of the great organ masters of the generation before J.S. Bach. Today, he is best known for the popular Canon in D major, for three violins and continuo, but is unfairly viewed as a one-work composer.
Other important works by Pachelbel include the Chaconne in F minor, the Toccata in E minor for organ, and the Hexachordum Apollinis. He was an important figure from the Baroque period who is now seen as central in the development of both keyboard music and Protestant church music. Some have summarized his primary contribution as the uniting of Catholic Gregorian chant elements with the Northern German organ style, a style that reflected the influence of the Protestant chorale. A Lutheran, he spent several years in Vienna where he was exposed to music by Frohberger and Frescobaldi, which influenced his work with the chorale-prelude. His music in this genre would in turn influence the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, among others. It should be noted that many of Pachelbel’s works are difficult to date, thus rendering judgments about his stylistic evolution questionable in many cases. Pachelbel was also a gifted organist and harpsichordist.
My collection includes the following works by Johann Pachelbel:
Canon in DM for strings and continuo.
Suite (Partita) No. 6 in BbM for Strings and Continuo (1691).
Suite in GM for Strings and Continuo.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources