John Collins - Organist, Harpsichordist Iberian Musicologist, Translator


One of the most important predecessors of J.S.Bach, certainly in terms of quantity of surviving keyboard works, Johann Pachelbel left many pieces that are equally suitable for performance on clavichord as well as harpsichord and organ. His output covers all the main genres of the period, including chorale preludes, preludes, fantasias and toccatas, fugues, ricercare, ciaconas, arias with variations and sets of dances, although only a very small fraction of these were published in his lifetime. Although there are several recordings of his complete keyboard works they are still not as widely known and played as they deserve to be and it is my wish in this short article to draw attention to some of the most attractive pieces.

The publication of 1699 entitled Hexachordum, Apollinis contains a set of six melodically attractive arias with variations of which the sixth entitled Aria Sebaldina, after St.Sebaldus, the Nuremberg church where Pachelbel was organist, is perhaps the best known; the dedication jointly to Tobias Richter and Buxtehude is noteworthy. It is probable that Pachelbel was the composer of the other five arias as well, following the examples of Buxtehude and Bernardo Pasquini in writing variations on their own material. The key arrangement is interesting, rising from D minor through E minor, F, G minor, A minor and F minor, the expected B♭ being realised by the two flats in the key signature. Apart from the second with five variations and the last with eight the others all have six, ranging in style from ornamented melody in RH, gigue like movements to carefully notated stile brisé figuration and tricky semiquaver passages in the final movement (nos. 3 and 5). Written out lengthy trills and oscillating thirds appear in the final set. Filled with a plaintive beauty, these arias are well deserving of their high ranking. Further arias in A (three variations), A minor (four) and D major (six) do not attain the same heights but are still worth reviving and have plenty of points worthy of attention such as the demisemiquaver figuration in the final variation of the A minor and the carefully writtenout trills in thirds or tenths in the two-part final variation of the D major. All the pieces are in binary form and the repetition of the aria after the final variation would greatly enhance the cumulative effect of the work as a whole. An arietta in F with nine variations offers greater challenges to the player without the greater variety of stylistic differences between the movements, the final three in 12/16 requiring nimble fingers.

With regard to the set of twenty suites ascribed to Pachelbel by Max Seiffert in the early years of the 20th century and again by Hans Moser in 1967 we are faced with serious doubts as to the accuracy of this ascription. The keys used include the less common C minor (only allemande and courante), C♯ minor, E major, F♯ minor, B♭ major and B minor and the highly unusual A♭ major with its allemande’s excursions into F♭ and C♭ There being no critical commentary in the Mose edition it is impossible to know the notation in the original MS). Most contain the usual four dances movements of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue with the addition of gavotte (in C major, D major, E♭, E, E minor no. 8, F, F♯ minor, A, A minor), air (C♯ minor, A♭, B minor), menuett (G major), Ballett, (G minor no. 14) and bourée in B♭. The most interesting suites are in E minor no. 9 with its double to the sarabande and virtuoso contrapuntal gigue in 12/8 as opposed to 6/4 (the suite is ascribed by Rampe to Froberger), A major and B♭ major. Regardless of their authorship these suites contain several attractive movements that rise above the commonplace.

In 1683 Pachelbel published a set of four chorale variations entitled Musicalishe Sterbensgedanken which ahs been lost, however Seiffert believed that he had found a MS copy of this print in Hamburg. These four together with a three more sets of chorale variations playable on stringed keyboard instruments (only the final variations of Ach was soll ich Sünder machen and Werde munter, mein Gemüte require the pedal for the cantus firmus) offer examples of the mainly manualiter sets of chorale variations that may have been used as private devotions. The most extensive set is the twelve variations on Christus der ist mein Leben, the shortest being Freu dich sehr o meine Seele and Werde munter, mein Gemüte, each with only four. Not dissimilar in style to the arias, the chorale melody appears mainly in ornamented form in the treble, but there are appearances in plain form in the tenor and bass. Each set presumed to be from the lost print includes a highly chromatic variation, which is not found in the other three. Variation seven of Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan has arpeggiated demisemiquaver triads over a bass moving in crotchets and variation eight of the same is a gigue like 12/8 with each half starting with imitative entries. These seven sets provide further enjoyable examples of Pachelbel’s skill in the technique of writing arias and variations and apart from being played at home they can be successfully used liturgically.

Of the seventy-two surviving chorale preludes there are many written for manuals only that would give much satisfaction on the clavichord, although where the melody appears in long notes in the treble it may have to be restruck. Space precludes a listing of titles or stylistic discussion but there is much variety to keep the player from monotony. Pachelbel left six ciaconas, of which the great examples in D minor and F minor require pedals but the remaining four sound well on the clavichord. The ciacona in C is unusual in being in C time and is based on a simple chord progression with 24 variations including a similar pattern of arpeggiated demisemiquaver triads over a bass moving in crotchets to that mentioned above. There are several two-part variations and in the penultimate set the writing is reduced to one “voice” only. The one in F is based on a four-bar ostinato of F C D C with 25 variations with more robustly virtuoso writing; the two others are both in D, the first one to be mentioned is based on a binary-form eight-bar chordal sequence in 3/2 similar to the well-known Canon followed by 13 variations. It also contains variations with one “voice” only but of a more virtuosic nature of quaver and semiquaver runs sweeping through the compass. The other one in D in 3/4 is also based on an eight-bar binary form chordal progression followed by 16 variations exploiting a range of styles; the final one needs the pedals to be played as written but transference of the part up an octave will provide one solution.

The three Ricercare are playable on manuals only, the F♯ minor and C minor being more austere than the C major which is based on the ascending major scale from tonic to dominant, the subject being announced in semibreves over or under quaver figuration frequently in thirds, the piece ending with a twelve-bar dominant pedal over which the quavers in thirds and sixths can be managed comfortably by the RH alone. The C minor is based on the chromatic tetrachord although its first appearance starts with C followed by E♭ then by semitones to G. The second section works through the inversion, and the final section introduces a new countersubject before this is combined with the tetrachord in both ascending and descending forms to provide a most satisfactory piece.

Three of the pieces entitled Fantasias are in 3/2 (C major, A minor and D minor) and are primarily sequential; the C major contains a passage in thirds in semibreves with both parts marked tr. A further example in D minor in C time is also filled with sequential figuration around a motif that appears imitatively. Two further Fantasias, in E♭ and G minor, are far more interesting, having their origins in the Italian durezze e ligature and elevazione of Frescobaldi and Froberger. The G minor contains much crotchet movement with written-in decorated resolutions and modulations with powerful dissonances in remote keys. The E♭ fantasia has much more florid writing for the RH. Several Toccatas also fall into this category, for example those in D minor, D major and C major which contain florid passagework over long held chords. Also similar are the Preludes in D minor, E♭, G, G minor and A, with a further Prelude in A minor consisting of three-part writing entirely in crotchets and quaver suspensions.

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© John Collins 2013