Johann Pachelbel's Biography

Johann Pachelbel's Biography

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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. 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

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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.

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. 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.

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. 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. It is not known when Pachelbel composed his famous Canon. The work is scored for three violins and continuo, each violin entering in turn and elaborating on a simple theme as the piece gathers in strength and builds to a climax. But Pachelbel's importance is, in fact, perhaps greater as a composer for the organ; his chorale preludes, based on hymn tunes, strongly influenced J.S. Bach. He was also the author of a great many motets, arias and Masses, and 13 Magnificats which feature solo singers and a choir as well as an orchestra often including wind and brass. His body of work reflects the cultural contrasts between his own Protestant ways and those of the higher Church, and certainly deserves to be known at least as well as his celebrated Canon.

Two sons, Carl and Wilhelm Hieronymus were also organists and composer, the former emigrating to the New World and dyimg in Charleston, S.C. Johann Pachelbel was baptized in Nuremberg, Germany September 1, 1653. Pachelbel moved to Vienna in 1671 where he became the deputy organist at the Imperial Chapel . In 1678 Pachelbel moved to Erfurt, where he taught Johann Christoph Bach, the older brother of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1690 Pachelbel became court organist at Stuggart. Pachelbel's first wife, Barbara Gabler, and son died in the plague of 1683. Pachelbel married his second wife, Judith Drommer in August of 1684. Pachelbel had seven children with this marriage. Two of his children became musicians, one an instrument maker, and one a painter (ibid).
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