Friday, March 7, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 7
            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1706 Johann Pachelbel died. Although the date of his death is often reported as March 3, we know for sure that he was buried on March 9. Thus, scholars now believe that he probably died on march 6 or 7, since it would have been very unusual in the 18th century to allow a body to go unburied for as long as six days.

Pachelbel’s death date provides our Bach Bagatelle today: Influences on Bach

And of course, Pachelbel is one of “Bach and the Band,” a Thuringian musician. You undoubtedly know him through his famous “Canon in D,” often simply called “Pachelbel’s Canon,” a piece that is still popular three centuries later!


He was born in Nuremburg, in the state of Bavaria, just south of Thuringia, 32 years before Sebastian was born. We know that after completing his schooling in Bavaria in 1673 he was deputy organist at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, a city whose musical interests were Italian.

In 1677, at age 24, Pachelbel moved to Eisenach, Thuringia, where he worked as court organist to Johan Georg I, Duke of Saxe-Eisenach. He only spent one year here, owing to the death of his patron’s brother and the consequent curtailment of musical performance. In that year, however, he was tutor to the sons of Johann Ambrosius Bach, Sebastian’s father!

Pachelbel became organist at the Preacher’s Church in nearby Erfurt in 1678, where his predecessor was Johann Effler, who preceded Sebastian as organist in Weimar. Pachelbel remained friends with the Bachs, serving as godfather to Sebastian’s sister Johanna Juditha and teacher to his eldest brother Johann Christoph.

Christoph married in 1694 in Ohrdruf when Sebastian was nine years old. Pachelbel was one of the composers invited to provide the music, and this was the only time that he and J.S. Bach met.

Pachelbel’s influence on the youngster was, however, greater. After Sebastian was orphaned he lived with Christoph, who punished his kid brother for sneaking Pachelbel manuscripts and copying them by refusing him further access to the precious works.

During his 12 years in Erfurt, Pachelbel established himself as one of the teachers and composers who raised the south German organ tradition to its height. He was particularly noted for his development of the chorale prelude and the fugue.

South German vs. North German

German 17th century organ composers are commonly divided into South German and North German based on teacher-student connections, technical aspects of organ construction, and style of composition.
The South German tradition was shaped by musicians who traveled to Italy or studied under Italian masters. The first important composer of this school was Johann Jacob Froberger, who taught Johann Kaspar Keril, who taught Pachelbel.

The South German composers preferred a simple organ with few stops, a single manual, and often no pedal. Their compositions concentrated on uncomplicated melodic and harmonic clarity. Pachelbel’s work was the highest point of this tradition.

The North German tradition, on the other hand, fostered a harmonically and rhythmically complex improvisatory style embellished with runs, arpeggios and counterpoint. These composers preferred larger and more versatile instruments, with two or more manuals, a pedal board, and a wide range of stops. The Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck is considered the founder of this tradition, whereas Dieterich Buxtehude represents its pinnacle.

Pachelbel was an influence on Sebastian Bach through his eldest brother Christoph, who studied with Pachelbel, but the entire Bach family was more strongly influenced by those in the North German tradition such as Georg Böhm and Johann Adam Reincken.

Pachelbel married twice during his time in Erfurt, since his first wife and their son died of the plague two years after the wedding. Ten months later on August 24, 1684, he married Judith Drommer, with whom he had five sons and two daughters. Two of the sons became organ composers, and one, Charles Theodore, immigrated to America and became the most famous musical figure in Charleston, South Carolina. Another son became an instrument maker and traveled as far as Jamaica, and one daughter became a recognized painter and engraver.

The elder Pachelbel left Erfurt in 1690, working first in Stuttgart, then Gotha, and finally in Nuremberg, where he lived out the rest of his life, dying there in 1706 at the age of 52.

Johann Gottfried Walther is the most famous composer influenced by Pachelbel. Walther was born in Erfurt, Thuringia one year before Sebastian, and was our Bach’s second cousin.

More to come on cultural and familial cross-breeding in Thuringia!

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