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ClassicsOnline Home » PACHELBEL: Organ Works
Organ Works Vol. 1
Johann Pachelbel is widely known for his Canon and Gigue for
three violins and basso continuo, a composition that has now undergone
arrangement after arrangement. Organists, at least, remain familiar with the
quantity of music he wrote for the instrument on which he was a distinguished
performer. Born in 1653 in Nuremberg, he is the leading representative of the
South German school of organ music in the generation before that of Johann
Sebastian Bach, a prolific composer of a body of work that is of significance
in itself, apart from any influence it may have had on later musicians.
Pachelbel benefited from a sound general education and when the
inability of his father to support him compelled his withdrawal after one year
from study at the university in Altdorf, he was able to continue with a
scholarship at the Regensburg Gymnasium Poeticum, taking extracurricular organ
lessons from a pupil of Johann Kaspar Kerll, the latter a pupil of Carissimi
and perhaps of Frescobaldi in Italy. In 1673 Pachelbel became assistant
organist at St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where Kerll now held the position
of principal organist. Whether Pachelbel was actually a student of Kerll or
not, he was clearly influenced by his association with a leading musician
familiar with the Italian style. Four years later he moved to Eisenach as court
organist, leaving the following year, during a period of court mourning, and
taking up the position of organist at the Protestant Predigerkirche in Erfurt,
under the strict professional rules of that establishment. The period of twelve
years spent at Erfurt brought association with the Bach family as godfather to
Johann Sebastian's sister Johanna Juditha and as the teacher of his brother
Johann Christoph, to whose house in Ohrdruf Johann Sebastian moved after the
early death of his parents.
In 1690 Pachelbel moved to Stuttgart as court organist, escaping, after
the French invasion of 1692, to serve as town organist at Gotha. In 1695 the
death of the existing incumbent allowed him to return to Nuremberg as organist
at St Sebald, the principal church in the city. By this stage in his career he
enjoyed a considerable reputation as a performer and composer and this new and
final appointment was offered to him by invitation not through the usual
competition. He retained the position until his death in 1706.
Pachelbel's Praeludium in D minor starts with a theme in
the pedals, then imitated on the manuals, repeated in a related major key and
followed by a passage of impressive chords and arpeggios. A passage largely in
sequence leads to a section of chords and a solemn conclusion.
The first of the five works based on chorales here included uses Komm,
Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist (‘Come, God Creator, Holy Ghost’), Martin
Luther's translation of the Venite, Creator Spiritus. In Erfurt
Pachelbel had been instructed to provide a carefully prepared prelude to the
chorale to be sung by the congregation and thereafter to accompany each verse.
This organ chorale, a prelude of this kind, takes the hymn melody as its cantus
firmus, the basis of a four-part texture.
The modal Fantasia in G minor, one of six such works, is
largely chordal in texture, as suspension follows suspension in unusual shifts
of harmony. The Toccata in C major opens with an extended passage over
sustained pedal notes, over which the opening figure is developed.
In Gott der Vater wohn uns bei (‘God the Father dwells with us’)
Pachelbel takes as his source a version by Luther of a popular German hymn or
Leise, adding three voices to the cantus firmus in a relatively
Four further Toccatas, in G minor, E minor, C minor and C major
respectively, from the sixteen in existence, offer examples of the form, with
an element of drama in the curious modulations of the work in E minor and a
pedal note foundation for the Toccatas in C minor and C major, as
upper parts weave a unified texture above.
Pachelbel left three Ricercares, examples of an older form in
which imitation plays a strong part. The Ricercar in C minor proposes an
ascending chromatic subject, other parts entering in imitation, as the subject
is duly inverted and explored, with livelier figuration in the last section, as
the later subject is finally combined with the first, both also in inversion.
The Ricercar in F sharp minor, a less usual key, follows a
similar pattern in its inversions and imitations of the brief opening subject
and second thematic material treated in the same way. The two subjects and
their inversions are intricately combined in conclusion.
Three of Pachelbel's 26 surviving fugues are here included. The first,
one of a dozen in C major, proposes a cheerful subject, echoed by other
entering parts as the work develops. The Fugue in D minor is
characteristic again of the developing form. The subject descends
chromatically, with a contrasting countersubject, duly explored. The Fugue in
D major is based on a livelier subject and demonstrates the basic unity
of the form.
The Chaconne is a Baroque variation form in which an ostinato bass,
with its consequent harmonies, serves as the foundation of a series of short
variations. Pachelbel's Ciacana
in F minor is based on four descending notes in the bass, above which
inventive variations appear, effective in their contrasting figuration. The
second example, from the six in existence, the Ciacona in D minor, follows
a similar pattern, based on a different ostinato, testimony to
Pachelbel's interest and skill in variation forms.
Three final works are
based on Christmas chorales. The first of these, Gelobet seist du, Jesu
Christ (‘Praised be thou, Jesus Christ’), is again a three-part chorale
prelude based on the chorale as cantus firmus, a hymn derived by Luther
from earlier German popular tradition. Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich (‘The
day that is so joyful’) is an example of a so-called combination-form, in
which an opening prelude-fugue is followed by a section based on the chorale as
a cantus firums. Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (‘From Heaven on high I
come’), adapted by Luther from the biblical account of the birth of Christ, is
built on the chorale melody in longer notes in the pedals.
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PACHELBEL: Organ Works