Johann Pachelbel: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Johann Pachelbel was an important composer and organist of the German Baroque period. He had a great influence on the composers who followed him. This lesson will discuss his life and music.

Name That Tune!

There it is again. You're watching TV and that familiar music starts. It's just a commercial for lightbulbs, but it's still some of the most beautiful music you've ever heard. Didn't Aunt Betsy have it played at her wedding? You heard it at Cousin Leo's graduation, too. Those soaring violins, the simple cello line...could it be the Canon in D?

Pachelbel as Organist

Johann Pachelbel
Portrait of Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel was baptized September 1, 1653 in Nürnberg (in modern-day Germany), which was in his day a thriving, cultural imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. He studied music with composer Heinrich Schwemmer and attended the Altdorf, a university on the outskirts of Nürnberg, for one year. He then traveled to Regensburg where he studied composition and organ with the prominent musician, Kaspar Prentz. Young Johann clearly did well in his studies. In 1673, at the age of twenty, he received the position of deputy organist at the prestigious St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria.

This proved to be just the beginning of an illustrious organ career. St. Stephen's was followed by positions throughout Germany: the Eisenach Court, where he met Johann Sebastian Bach's father; Erfurt, where he met Johann Sebastian's older brother Johann Christoph; Stuttgart; and Gotha.

Pachelbel's most important appointment came towards the end of his life. In 1695, he was invited to assume the position of head organist at St. Sebaldus Church in Nürnberg, his hometown. He returned home having achieved great acclaim for his organ skills throughout German-speaking Europe. In addition to his organist duties, he taught organ lessons to young aspiring musicians.

St. Sebaldus Church
Picture of St. Sebaldus Church

Pachelbel as Composer

As Pachelbel spent much of his life playing the organ for worship services, both Catholic and Protestant, most of his compositions were for that purpose. He composed numerous pieces for Catholic worship; motets, Magnificats, and masses. However, it is the chorale prelude used in Protestant worship at which Pachelbel excelled.

Chorales were hymns sung by the congregation. They used texts that related to the day's sermon. Chorale preludes were organ pieces that served as an introduction to the chorale. The composer ornamented the chorale melody and 'fancied it up' a bit. Pachelbel was so skilled in discovering new ways to decorate the chorale tune that his preludes would inspire two great composer-organists, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach.

A chorale prelude by Pachelbel. The chorale melody is the top line.
A chorale prelude by Pachelbel

Pachelbel also composed secular music. He wrote numerous suites for harpsichord, sonatas for violin, and variations on popular melodies for many different instruments. His most important work is the Hexachordum Apollinis, a collection of six arias with variations for harpsichord or organ. His most famous work is the well-known Canon in D for three violins and basso continuo. If you've attended any wedding in the past twenty years, you've probably heard this piece. Its lasting popularity is a wonderful testament to Pachelbel's talent as a composer.

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