On September 1, 1653, German Baroque composer, organist and teacher Johann Pachelbel was christened. It was Pachelbel, who brought the south German organ tradition to its peak. He composed 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. Today, almost only a single piece of his musical legacy has survived and is still quite popular: the Canon in D – making Pachelbel seemingly to some kind of Baroque One-Hit Wonder.
Early Years in Nuremberg and Regensburg
The exact date of birth of Johann Pachelbel is unknown. However, he was christened on 1 Sep 1653 in Nuremberg. His parents were the plumber and wine merchant Johann (Hans) Pachelbel (* 1613 in Wunsiedel) and his second wife Anna Maria, née Mair. He attracted attention early on for his musical and scientific talent. He had to give up his studies at the University of Altdorf near Nuremberg in 1669 after only nine months, because his father got into financial problems and had to pawn his house. Johann Pachelbel subsequently attended the Lutheran grammar school Poeticum in Regensburg, and in 1673 he moved to Vienna, where he continued his organist career and got highly influenced by the city’s culture and the Italian music.
Eisenach and Erfurt – Meeting Bach
He became ducal court organist in Eisenach in 1677, where he was employed by Johann Georg I, Duke of Saxe-Eisenach, and got to know the Bach family there. 1678 he changed as organist to the Predigerkirche Erfurt, where he gave organ lessons to Johann Sebastian Bach‘s older brother, Johann Christoph Bach. The Bach’s were very well known there and enjoyed a great influence, which was also helpful to Pachelbel. In 1694 it is believed that he met Johann Sebastian Bach, then nine years old for the first time. In Erfurt Johann Pachelbel married Barbara Gabler in 1681, who, like their son, died of the plague in October 1683. In the following year he married Juditha Dommer, the daughter of a coppersmith. They had seven children, among them the painter Amalia as well as the sons Wilhelm Hieronymus and Carl Theodorus, who emigrated to America, who were also musicians.
Later Years – Back in Nuremberg
In 1690 Johann Pachelbel moved to Stuttgart in the service of Duchess Magdalena Sibylla. In 1692 he fled from an impending French invasion in connection with the Palatine War of Succession (1688-1697) to Nuremberg. He then worked as city organist at the Augustiner and Margaret Church in Gotha. 1695 he went back to his hometown Nuremberg, where he became successor of the deceased Georg Caspar Wecker as organist of St. Sebald. In 1699 his important collection of variations for keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) Hexachordum Apollinis was created there. Here Johann Pachelbel died at the age of 52 on March 3, 1706. He is buried at the Rochus cemetery in Nuremberg.
It is assumed that Pachelbel influenced the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and through some of students, who took residence in American colonies, Pachelbel also had influence on the church music across the Atlantic Ocean. He is regarded as a pioneer for Johann Sebastian Bach, who worked a few decades later. Unfortunately for Pachelbel, the Baroque style went out of fashion pretty soon and only few of his works stayed in people’s minds. Pachelbel’s compositions include chorale arrangements, free organ works (toccatas, ciacons, fantasies and fugues), organ chorales, chorale variations and trio sonatas. His chorale arrangements with a pre-imitation of the individual motifs in the accompanying voices have become particularly well known. In his organ works the pedal is used relatively sparingly depending on the region, many works are only written as manualiters.
In the 1970s, his Canon in D major, a chamber music experienced an enormous popularity. It is assumed that a 1968 recoding by Jean-François Paillard led to this sudden success and transferred the piece into a cultural icon. Paillard’s rendition was done in a more Romantic style, at a significantly slower tempo than it had been played at before, and contained obligato parts, written by Paillard, that are now closely associated with the piece. In July 1968, Greek band Aphrodite’s Child released the single “Rain and Tears“, which was a baroque-rock adaptation of Pachelbel’s Canon. The band was based in France at the time, although it is unknown whether they had heard the Paillard recording, or were inspired by it. “Rain and Tears” was a success, reaching number 1 on the pop charts of various European countries. Several months later, in October 1968, Spanish band Pop-Tops released the single “Oh Lord, Why Lord“, which again was based on Pachelbel’s Canon. The music became also known through the Oscar winning movie ‘Ordinary People‘ in 1980, which was also Robert Redford‘s directional debut. Pachelbel’s masterpiece is now popular during wedding ceremonies and other emotional moments. Next to this famous work, Pachelbel became known as an organ composer and created over two hundred musical pieces. Less known are his vocal music compositions even though he wrote almost a hundred of them.
References and Further Reading:
-  Johann Pachelbel in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart [German]
-  A list of Pachelbel’s works
-  Johann Pachelbel at the Choral Public Domain Library
-  Rocking the Baroque – Johann Sebastian Bach, SciHi Blog
-  Free sheet music of Canon in D from Cantorion.org
-  Johann Pachelbel at Wikidata
-  Wright, Lecture 14. Ostinato Form in the Music of Purcell, Pachelbel, Elton John and Vitamin C, Listening to Music (Musi 112), YaleCourses @ youtube
-  Wendy Thompson, Basil Smallman “Pachelbel, Johann”, The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford University Press, 2002.
-  Nolte, Ewald V. 1954. The Instrumental Works of Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706): an Essay to Establish his Stylistic Position in the Development of the Baroque Musical Art. Diss., Northwestern University.
-  Timeline of German classical organists, via DBpedia and Wikidata