Pachelbel: (not) Just the One-hit Wonder of the Canon in D?

Pachelbel: (not) Just the One-hit Wonder of the Canon in D?

As much as I like Pachelbel’s Canon in D – and many of you probably as well, Johann Pachelbel was much more than the composer of his Canon alone. With over 500 works that are assigned to Pachelbel, it’s obvious that reducing this composer to his canon alone, is doing him much injustice. But there is one important fact on top of that: the huge influence Pachelbel had on another composer we might now a bit better: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg in 1653 and, as a teenager, explored Southern Germany, where he was surrounded by a rich musical culture, shaped and influenced still by composers such as Frescobaldi and Gabrieli. Twenty years old, nuremberg 17th centuryin 1673, he moved to Vienna, political and musical capital of the Habsburg empire. There he met and worked with famous composers such as Kerll and Muffat while studying at the same time the music of his predecessor Froberger.

Eisenach-1647-MerianIn 1677 Pachelbel changed Vienna for… Eisenach. He quickly befriended the Bach family, where only 8 years later one of the greatest composers of all time would see daylight. Ambrosius Bach, Johann Sebastian’s father, was a prominent member of the Bach clan, who dominated the region in such way that if a musician was needed somewhere, often a ‘Bach’ was asked for! Pachelbel stayed only one year in Eisenach, but the bound between him and Ambrosius must have been really deep. He moved to Erfurt in 1678, a place where he would stay for twelve years. Still, Johann Pachelbel became godfather to Johann Juditha Bach (Sebastian’s sister) and taught Johann Christoph Bach (Sebastian’s elder brother).

Johann Christoph Bach studied with Pachelbel in Erfurt from 1686 to 1689.  When he married in 1694 it is documented that Pachelbel was present on his wedding, for which occasion he composed the music that he most probably has performed himself. Chances are big that young Sebastian was present, the only time Pachelbel and he have met.

1694 is an important date for Sebastian, but for a worse reason. His mother passed away on the 3d of May of that year. Soon after, on February 20 1695, his father, age 50 would follow his wife  to the grave.  Johann Christoph, just married with a first child of barely one year, would take Sebastian in house.

It is certain that Johann Sebastian received a excellent musical training from his brother. It is not difficult either to imagine that much of what Pachelbel had taught Christoph was passed on to his younger brother.

Concrete information of what exactly young Sebastian studied and played at this time is lost forever. However, the music book from another Pachelbel student, Johann Valentin Eckelst, who studied in the same time as Christoph with Pachelbel, still exists. In that manuscript, we find pieces from Pachelbel (preludes, fugues, fantasies, capriccios, suites and chorals) as well as pieces from Froberger, Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Krieger, Guillaume Gabriel Nivers, and others.

It’s probably a similar book from which the Bach necrology speaks. We all know the story of young Sebastian, desperately wanting to play from his older brother’s music book, with works by exactly Froberger, Kerll, Pachelbel – the same names as are in the Eckelst manuscript . Access to that book was forbidden by Christoph, so young Sebastian secretly went down at night, each night for six long months, copying the book. At the end he was caught by Christoph who took it away from him. Christoph Wolff, in his famous Bach biography suggest that Christoph might have had nothing against his brother playing from that manuscript, but copying diminished the value of the book, for which he himself had to pay for while studying with Pachelbel.

Sebastian Bach later destroyed most, if not all of his younger works, but in a manuscript called the “Neumeister collection”, 38 pieces are found of which some belong undoubtedly to young Sebastian. 38 choral preludes total, 25 written before 1700. Their style is closely related to Pachelbel, Christoph and Michael Bach. It might be a topic for a future video to dive into this. That manuscript only shows us the deep influence Pachelbel had on Bach, because of the quality the Nuremberg master displayed in his compositions, partly as well because of the close relationship Pachelbel had and kept with the Bach family. Only that aspect should give him a higher musical status than he has today.

We cannot end this blog post without mentioning the Hexachordum Apollinis. Published in 1699, this bundle of 6 arias with variations is to be considered as one of the highlights of Pachelbel’s oeuvre for keyboard.

Dietrich BuxtehudeOne of the surprising elements here is, that Pachelbel dedicated the Hexachordum to two musicians,  Tobias Richter and, a today still really famous name, Dietrich Buxtehude, the famous organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Pachelbel expresses in his foreword the wish that his son one day would study with the two masters, something we don’t know if that ever happened. But we all know the story of still young and ambitious Sebastian, leaving Arnstadt to stay a while with the Lübeck master, a stay that turned out to be much longer than allowed. Bach was just 20 when he would return to Arnstadt. But it is highly possible, if not certain, that the Hexachordum Apollinis, probably even a copy of the edition signed by the Nuremberg master, was played and discussed in long winter evenings that young Bach and old Buxtehude spent around the keyboard. And as with Mozart, also for a genius like Bach, impressions like these had a deep influence in the development of his own style.

So yes, Pachelbel, so much more than only the composer of the Canon in D. Our recording of the Hexachordum Apollinis, the first complete on clavichord,  might be an up step for more in the future. Who knows?

At the end of the video linked above this blog post, you will find my almost improvised recording of the Ricercar, written in my Bärenreiter  edition as an organ piece with pedal, but perfectly playable on keyboard too. But before I do so, I’d like to thank you all for watching. If you have questions or want to share some additional thoughts to the topic of this video, please leave them in the comment section under that video. And if you are new here to our Youtube Channel there, hit that subscribe button: it’ll be nice to meet each other also there!