Keeping Virtuosity in Check: a Tribute to Johann Pachelbel

Tomorrow marks the 313th anniversary of Johann Pachelbel’s burial in his native city of Nuremburg, Germany.  That a three-digit, vaguely trinitarian prime number rather than the usual multiple of a hundred occasions this short tribute strikes me as a fitting way to run from the expected. Whatever the odometer reading, it’s high time to redirect attention away from the long-exhausted Canon in D and instead towards the diverse works of a composer who was perhaps the most celebrated musician in the Protestant Germany of his time, revered for his learning, artistry, dedication and virtue. In Pachelbel’s life that reputation extended across Europe. In his early forties, he was offered an organist job at Oxford, which he turned down, pursuing his career instead in a succession of German cities separated by hundreds of miles. There may have been an anglophone or at least anglophilic strain in the Pachelbel family. One of his sons, Carl Theodore emigrated to North America and became an influential composer and teacher in Charleston, South Carolina; another, Johann Michael, was an instrument maker in Nuremberg who ventured to Kingston, Jamaica.  Well-trained by their father, they brought his craft with them to the other side of the Atlantic.

Johann Pachelbel died at the age of fifty-two, and on his deathbed he had been surrounded by music. As was common in Lutheran Germany, family and friends gathered around the dying man and sang his favorite hymn.  One important eighteenth-century biographical source names this chorale as “Herr Jesus Christ, meines Lebens Licht” (Lord Jesus Christ, Light of My Life). Curiously, that text does not seem to appear in any of Pachelbel’s nearly 500 surviving works, most of them of sacred stamp. Perhaps the author of the account of his demise confused the hymn with Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ, who is my life), which is the opening chorale of Pachelbel’s first publication, Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken  (Musical Thoughts on Death)of 1683. Here the melody is treated in a series of a dozen variations whose effervescent charm seems to belie the funereal title of the collection. Keyboard music was rarely printed at the time, but Pachelbel resolutely incurred the expense of bringing this volume out, probably as a memorial to his young wife and baby, who had recently been taken by a plague in Erfurt, the university city in central Germany where he had become the leading organist in 1678.

Pachelbel’s Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken are not so much about distracting one from grief, as they are concerned with elevating one’s thoughts to heaven—refreshing the soul through happy thoughts and nimble fingers. These pieces were to be played at home on the clavichord or harpsichord, or on the church organ, like the impressive instrument at the Predigerkirche (Preachers’ Church) in Erfurt. Given that Pachelbel spent several formative years as the assistant organist at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in catholic Vienna it is fitting that the best recording of this music (on the Amadeuslabel from 2006) journeys still farther to the south and finds Edoardo Bellotti and Maurizio Salerno playing the two Italian baroque instruments in Milan’s church of Santa Maria dell Passione. These musical reflections on mortality become a balm for the beset spirit.

As a teenager Pachelbel had left the parental home in Nuremberg first for Regensburg, then for Vienna, before journeying far to the north to Thuringia, heartland of the Bach clan, in 1677. His first position there was as court organist at Eisenach, where he met Johann Sebastian Bach’s father, a town musician Johann Ambrosius, and stood godfather to one of his children. Sebastian’s brother Johann Christoph, would later study with Pachelbel in Erfurt. This same older brother would give Sebastian his first keyboard lessons after the young boy was orphaned. Pachelbel’s music was an important part of that tuition; Johann Christoph was an assiduous scribe of keyboard music including that of his teacher. Several works by Pachelbel survive thanks to these efforts.

According to a famous Bach family vignette retailed in Sebastian’s obituary, the youngster even copied some of this brothers’ manuscripts by moonlight and without permission. Once caught, he was sternly punished.  That Sebastian learned well his musical lessons, even if not those of obedience to authority, is proved in those of his early chorale preludes that are indistinguishable from those of the older master. “Pachelbel” was often spelled with a B instead of a P and sometimes shortened to “Bach.” — thus adding to the potential confusion.

One can get a sense of the kind of music and instruments cultivated by Bachs and Bachelbels—along with a more permissive and endearing update of the domestic atmosphere that surrounded these pieces—from the recent efforts of Flemish keyboardist Wim Winters playing Pachelbel’s Ciacona in F Minor at home. This set of variations over a simple repeating pattern in the bass is imaginative and graceful, but never ostentatious. It delights rather than astounds, draws the listener in for intimate involvement rather than pushing her back in hopes of eliciting astonished admiration.

On the same central-German style clavichord of ample eighteenth-century (rather than more modest seventeenth-century) proportion, Winters has also recently released a sumptuous album (recorded in analog, as he proudly notes, and also issued on vinyl) of Pachelbel’s final publication, Hexachordum Apollinis. This perfectly proportioned collection appeared in 1699 some five years after Pachelbel had been called back to the Church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg where he lived out the remainder of his days. These are yet more variations, this time based on instrumental “arias”—tunes, some jaunty, some plaintive, of the composer’s own devising. One can watch Winters playing this repertoire as well thanks to his robust YouTube presence—this time minus the dancing and page-turning daughters.

For Pachelbel,  keyboard playing, especially the elaboration of chorales, was a restrained form of pious praise enlivened when deemed appropriate by decorous exuberance. It was not a means of self-aggrandizing display. Rarely, if ever, does the fantastical dominate.  Pachelbel’s contract for the Erfurt organist’s post that he held for a dozen years forbade him from improvising his introductory preludes to the chorales. Instead was required to work them out carefully on paper. The products of these labors were disseminated widely among his many students, including the likes of Johann Christoph Bach. This seemingly un-Baroque prohibition on winging it not only ensured quality, but also kept personal impulse and rampant virtuosity in check.

It is in the instrumental music that devotion gives way to what in church might be condemned as sensual excess. Un orage d’avril (An April Storm; issued by Harmonia Mundi, 2016) from Gli Incogniti with violinist Amandine Beyer at the helm includes all six suites of Pachelbel’s published suites. These appeared 1695 under the title Musicalische Ergötzung (Musical Delight), two years after Pachelbel’s return to Nuremberg. Depending on where the music sends her, Beyer’s playing, and that of the those around her, is fiery, poised, pleading, refined, introspective, exalted—climatic in its ever changing temperatures and temperaments.  The fabulous precision of ensemble never comes at the expense of spontaneity. Interspersed with these instrumental numbers are tenor arias sung by Hans Jörg Mammel; these depict that spring storm, hymn a town father, and summon life’s crosses. The quotidian comes alive. These offerings provide us the smallest sampling of Pachelbel’s highly-praised vocal music cultivated during his Nuremburg years. The warmth, purity, and disarming directness of Mammel’s voice lifts the soul above the climatic vicissitudes of earthly life, especially when buoyed by the string sonorities of Gli Incogniti. The disc closes with the (in)famous Canon,  heard here as nothing more than a lively coda—a top forty footnote to a rich and rewarding oeuvre still to be explored these 313 years since Pachelbel was laid to rest, but not silenced.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at