Johann Pachelbel and his time in Erfurt
by Christian Bürger
In addition to the members of the Bach family, an important role in Erfurt’s musical history is played by a man who is usually better known as a “genuine Nuremberg”. The name of this baroque organist and composer is Johann Pachelbel. Apart from people who like baroque music, the name of the Franconian is probably known to only a few, but all the more so his most famous work, the Canon and Gigue in D major, which enjoys great popularity not least as wedding music.
In addition to his time in Vienna, Stuttgart and Nuremberg, he spent many years of his life in Thuringia, namely in Eisenach, Gotha and especially in Erfurt. This article would like to cast a special light on Pachelbel’s time in Erfurt and Thuringia, hinting at the role Pachelbel’s art played for the city, his relationship to the Bach family, and the rich musical life that unfolded in the Thuringian cultural region in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Childhood and education
Johann Pachelbel was baptized in Nuremberg on September 1, 1653. His exact date of birth is unknown, but according to the customs of the time he will have been born within a few days before, perhaps even on the same day. His father was a tinsmith and came from Wunsiedel.
The family seems to have recognized Pachelbel’s talent early on and readily encouraged it. In Nuremberg, Pachelbel attended Latin school and also received a basic musical education. In 1668 Pachelbel went to the university in Altdorf for further education, where he earned his living as an organist for the first time. However, his income was not sufficient, which forced him to interrupt his studies. The next station of his education was Regensburg, where he was able to continue his studies with the help of a scholarship and also received organ lessons from Kaspar Prentz.
First employment in Vienna
In 1674, the Franconian Protestant became assistant organist at the Catholic St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he assisted Johann Kaspar Kerll and further perfected his musical skills under him. He probably composed a number of Magnificat fugues during his time in Vienna under Kerll’s influence.
A Franconian comes to Thuringia
Pachelbel took up his first Thuringian post on May 4, 1677 as court organist in Eisenach. Here he had his first contact with the Bach family. The town organist at this time was Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) and his cousin, Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695), born in Erfurt, worked as a houseman and town piper. Johann Ambrosius was also the father of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), born in Eisenach in 1685. The musicians came to know and appreciate each other during this period. Johann Christoph Bach’s “Forty-four Chorales for Preambulation” were probably written under Pachelbel’s influence. Pachelbel had a lifelong friendship with both Bachs, which is also evidenced by his sponsorship of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older sister Johanna Juditha, born in 1680. Why Pachelbel left Eisenach after only one year, however, remains unclear. In addition to the limited development and earning opportunities in Eisenach, attractive prospects in Erfurt probably made it easy for him to leave. It is conceivable that the move to Erfurt came about largely through the mediation of the Bach family. Ambrosius Bach was a native of Erfurt, so it stands to reason that he recommended his friend to family members and the preaching congregation.
Organist at the Predigerkirche in Erfurt
On June 19, 1678, Pachelbel was appointed organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt. This had been the main Lutheran parish and council church of the city of Erfurt since the Reformation. Previously, it was the monastery church of the Dominican convent, which had been located in Erfurt since 1229 and was abolished with the Reformation. Today, the interior of the church is once again characterized by the medieval architecture. The late Gothic hall church with 15 bays without transept gives the impression of special size and depth due to its length of 76 meters, the 30 prominent columns and the high windows. The choir screen and rood screen from the late Middle Ages are still preserved today and, according to the old church understanding, separate the area of the simple congregation from the former choir area, where the Dominican monks had their place in the choir stalls in front of the high altar. In Pachelbel’s time, however, the medieval impression of the room was only partially comprehensible, since in the 16th century additional space for more worshippers was created by the installation of wooden galleries on the rood screen and in the side aisles. These were not removed until the 19th century. A special eye-catcher inside the church, then as now, was the baroque prospect of the Compenius organ – the work of Johann Pachelbel.
The organist of the Predigerkirche took a leading role among Erfurt’s musicians and received the second highest salary in the Prediger congregation after the main pastor of the church. This was 50 florins, then from 1684 60 florins plus payment in kind, allowance for organ maintenance and rent subsidy. Weddings and special services were paid extra. For comparison: the cantor and the sexton each received only 44 gulden per year.
Bach also had contact and friendly relations with members of the Bach musical family in Erfurt, especially with the sons of Johann Bach, who was a predecessor of Pachelbel as preacher organist from 1636-1673. These were Christian Bach the Elder (director of the Ratsmusik from 1667-1682) and Johann Aegidius Bach, organist at St. Michael’s and from 1682 his brother’s successor as director of the Ratsmusik. In general, Erfurt was the central location of the widely ramified Bach family of musicians, who worked in Erfurt as city musicians, organists, cantors, etc. for over 250 years, seven generations. Pachelbel also initially moved into an apartment in one of the “Bach Houses” on Junkersand, which was certainly made possible by his connections to the Eisenach Bachs and their friendly ties.
Through his time in Regensburg and Vienna, Pachelbel had no fear of contact with Catholics, which was an advantage in the bi-confessional city of Erfurt, which was mostly Protestant but had a Catholic sovereign. Nevertheless, Pachelbel was a convinced Protestant and refused to provide additional organ service in one of the city’s Catholic churches.
Already in his first year in Erfurt he had the opportunity to prove himself as a composer. In December 1678 the Erfurt sovereign, the Mainz Elector and Archbishop Damian Hartard von der Leyen had died and the Mainz Cathedral Chapter elected Karl Heinrich von Metternich-Winneburg as his successor. The latter did not come personally to Erfurt to receive the homage, but sent two members of the cathedral chapter and further entrusted the state holder Anselm Franz von Ingelheim to receive it. Due to the winter cold, the act was held in the large council chamber, to which Pachelbel’s composition was also played. A contemporary engraving shows the act of homage on January 30, 1679, on which Pachelbel is also indicated as the conductor of the performance. The “Unterthänigste Gemüts-Eröffnung”, a solemn work with timpani and trumpets, is the first work by Pachelbel of which the exact date of composition has survived. With this composition, Pachelbel had established himself in Erfurt.
In addition to his usual official duties, Pachelbel had to give an annual organ concert after the service on St. John’s Day. This so-called rehearsal was to last half an hour and allow the congregation as well as the churchwardens to assess his artistry. In connection with his official duties, it may be assumed that numerous organ works date from the Erfurt period. Which ones specifically can hardly be determined in detail.
That Pachelbel did not regard Erfurt merely as a stopover is also shown by the fact that he now wanted to found a family and settle down. On October 25, 1681, he married Barbara Gabler, daughter of the Erfurt councilor and city major Joachim Gabler, in the Predigerkriche. Whether this marriage was not concluded for compelling reasons, however, can be surmised from the fact that a son was already born to the couple in April 1682, who was baptized on April 26 with the name Johann Georg. Barbara Gabler must therefore already have been pregnant when Pachelbel married her in October 1680. This was a scandal in early modern society, especially since Pachelbel’s Erfurt employment contract actually obliged him to lead a morally exemplary life. However, sources about a possible prosecution of the matter have not survived and the marriage legalized the matter anyway. In any case, this fact provides evidence that this relationship came about out of affection and not for economic or similar reasons. Pachelbel’s first marriage, however, was not to last long.
The great plague
From 1681 onward, Europe was repeatedly hit by a major plague epidemic. In July 1682, it reached Erfurt. In the years 1682 and 1683, Erfurt experienced the most devastating plague period in its history, during which almost half of its inhabitants, namely 10,377 people, died. On some days, up to 200 people died, and panic, helplessness and despair reigned in the city. In the Predigergemeinde alone, three-quarters of the parishioners died during this time. Pachelbel’s wife and son also died in October 1683, making them among the last victims of the epidemic, as the infection in Erfurt subsided again in November 1683. The fact that Pachelbel was hit hard by this loss is shown in his “Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken”, which may have been written as a reaction to the loss. In the music, listeners can feel the grief of the widower, now single again and just thirty years old.
In addition to his wife and son, acquaintances and friends also perished as a result of the plague, such as Council Music Director Christian Bach the Elder.
Another marriage and musical reputation
From the widow of Christian Bach the Elder, Pachelbel acquired the house “Zur silbernen Tasche” in 1684, which shows that Pachelbel was able to live quite well on his Erfurt salary at that time. The fact that Pachelbel never acquired Erfurt citizenship is due to the fact that all church personnel and clergy were exempt from acquiring citizenship and the associated rights, duties and costs.
On August 24, 1684, Pachelbel married again, this time to Juditha Dommer, the daughter of an Erfurt coppersmith. Two years after the marriage, a son was born to the couple, who was baptized on August 29, 1686 in the Predigerkirche with the name Wilhelm Hieronymus. On 29.10.1688 daughter Amalia was born. The marriage seems to have been a happy one and produced a total of seven children.
Pachelbel had gained a reputation as a musician and composer that extended beyond Erfurt. His connection to the Bach family and their networks will also have played a part in the spread of this reputation.
In keeping with the times, Pachelbel taught numerous students on a part-time basis, of whom Johann Christoph Bach, the eldest brother of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1671 (taught by Pachelbel from 1686-1689), is probably the most important. Significant in that he later passed on the musical skills he had learned from Pachelbel to his brother Johann Sebastian after he joined him in Ohrdruf after the death of his parents. Johann Sebastian Bach can thus be described as an indirect student of Pachelbel. That Bach knew Pachelbel’s works and also oriented himself to them in his younger years is shown by the Easter cantatas with the title “Christ lag in Todesbanden” by the two composers. Bach’s early work is closely oriented in structure and sequence to Pachelbel’s work of the same name and shows remarkable parallels.
Moving to Stuttgart
The year 1690 brought a professional reorientation for Pachelbel. We do not know whether he actively applied or followed a tempting call. The farewell letter he received in Erfurt expresses that Pachelbel was reluctant to leave, but did not want to stand in the way of his professional development. Even after his departure from Erfurt, according to Siegfried Orth, he remained the owner of his house at Junkersand, which he had purchased in 1684, before selling it again in 1698.
The appointment that followed his time in Erfurt as court organist for the pietistically influenced Duchess Magdalena Sybilla in Stuttgart was, however, short-lived. At that time, the south of Germany was affected by the warlike conflicts with the French army, so that it was not possible for Pachelbel to remain in this post permanently. He may have regretted the move to the ducal court, which had taken him from relatively safe Erfurt to war-threatened Stuttgart. As early as 1692, he applied for his dismissal and went back to Thuringia, this time to Gotha.
Return to Thuringia – organist of Gotha
Pachelbel took up his new post in Gotha, the residential city of the Duchy of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg, on November 8, 1692. From this time comes the tradition of a joint music-making with Johann Ambrosius Bach, who lived in Eisenach, and town piper Hoffmann from Suhl. Whether Johann Sebastian, who was born in 1685, also met Pachelbel, who was active in neighboring Gotha, is not certain, but cannot be ruled out. In any case, Johann Pachelbel continued his contacts with the family of the “Bache” even now. In 1693, at the request of his former student Johann Christoph Bach, he examined the organ in Bach’s new place of work, Ordruf, and discovered considerable defects in the instrument.
But Pachelbel’s time in Gotha also remained a stage. That his reputation extended far beyond the narrow confines of the Thuringian small-state world is shown by the mere fact that during his Gotha years he received an offer to work as an organist in Oxford. However, Pachelbel declined this offer, which suggests that he did not unconditionally place his artistic ambitions above the interests of his family, for whom a move to England would probably have involved great hardship. In 1695, a prospect presented itself to the city organist Pachelbel that moved him to leave Gotha.
In his hometown of Nuremberg, his former teacher Georg Kaspar Wecker had died and the city of Nuremberg appointed him as his successor as organist of St. Sebald’s Church. That this offer seemed lucrative to him, not only musically but also materially, is suggested by the wording of his Gotha farewell petition, in which he also refers to the possibilities for the education of his children as well as his financial betterment in the Franconian imperial city. Pachelbel’s request was granted and he now left his adopted home of Thuringia, where he had spent a total of 16 years of his life and career, forever.
Organist in Nuremberg
Pachelbel not only found good economic and social prospects in his hometown but could also be sure of the respect of his work, especially since he already enjoyed an excellent reputation. The main pastor of the Sebaldskirche even dedicated the printing of an “Organ Sermon” to the organist. In 1699 his “Hexachordum Apollinis”, in 1704: the “Tabulator Buch Geistlicher Gesänge etc. ” appeared in print.
Pachelbel died on March 3, 1706 in his native city at the age of just 52. Death is said to have occurred while he was still singing the funeral chorale “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht.” He was buried in a family tomb in Nuremberg’s St. Rochus Cemetery that still survives today.
What of Pachelbel’s works was lost in the course of the centuries, or what and how much he really composed can hardly be determined, since in those days, due to the high costs and the economic risk, only a few compositions were published in print and the works were thus mostly handed down only in handwriting and in small numbers.
The eldest son, Wilhelm Hieronymus, born in 1686 in Erfurt, is said to have been Johann Pachelbel’s most musically gifted descendant. As Orth writes, he played as a child with Johann Gottfried Walther, who lived in the neighboring town and was born in 1684, and who later also became an important organist. Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748) was also related to the Bach family and was Johann Sebastian Bach’s cousin. Wilhelm Hieronymus certainly received music lessons from his father. At the age of 14, he received an honorarium of 14 gulden from the Nuremberg Council for organ services rendered. In 1706, the year of Pachelbel’s death, Wilhelm Hieronymus became organist at St. Jakobi in Nuremberg, and in 1725 he took over his late father’s former post at the Sebaldskirche in Nuremberg. He also composed, but today only a few of his compositions are known or have survived.
In the field of fine arts, Pachelbel’s daughter Amalia, also born in Erfurt in 1688, gained a certain reputation. She was very talented from an early age; she painted, sewed, embroidered and drew. The Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) and the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich still possess works by her hand. She married a notary in 1715 and died in Nuremberg in 1723.
Another son of Pachelbel, Johann Michael (1692-1755), lived in Nuremberg as an organ and instrument maker. Carl Theodorus Pachelbel, born in 1690, can be called the “American Pachelbel”. He probably received his musical education from his father as well. In 1730 he emigrated to the British colonies in North America, where he first lived in Boston. In 1733 he became organist at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1736 followed his move to Charleston (South Carolina) and his marriage in 1737. The union produced a son named Charles. Numerous concerts by him in Charleston and New York are recorded for the years 1736 and 1737, including one at the home of the wealthy wine merchant Robert Todd. A year before his death, in 1749, he attempted to initiate the founding of a singing school. He died on September 15, 1750.
Pachelbel and Thuringia – A Balance Sheet
Johann Pachelbel’s importance today is seen especially in his role for the musical tradition of the late 17th century, his mediating position between the South German and North German organ styles, and his pioneering function for the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Pachelbel’s tenure as preacher organist in Erfurt is about the same length as his tenure as Sebald’s organist in Nuremberg. Thus, Pachelbel had one of his longest tenures in Erfurt. He contracted two marriages here, raised a family, earned musical renown, and trained the next generation of musicians.
The fact that especially in Erfurt Pachelbel’s time is perceived rather weakly today, as well as the importance of the Bach family, which they once had for the early modern Erfurt music culture, is a challenge for the future. Although there are plaques commemorating the Bachs and Pachelbel, there is no special museum or memorial. The fact that Pachelbel and Bach’s ancestors are rather overshadowed outside interested circles is certainly also due to Johann Sebastian Bach himself. Today, he is the all-important composer of the Baroque period, which is all the more paradoxical when one considers that during his lifetime he was proverbially rather in the second row.
Out of 32 professional years, Pachelbel spent eleven in Nuremberg, two in Stuttgart and three in Vienna. He spent 13 professional years in Thuringia; eleven in Erfurt, three in Gotha and one in Eisenach. Thuringia is therefore more than just a stopover in Pachelbel’s biography, but a main area of influence. For Thuringia and especially for Erfurt, there are great opportunities in the remembrance of Johann Pachelbel and the further research of his life and work, which are by no means in competition with Bach research, but can complement it in a meaningful and multifaceted way.
Independently of this, it is generally worthwhile to get to know the masters “before Bach” more closely. Whether Buxtehude, Schütz, Scheidt, Schein, Praetorius, Bruhns, Erlebach, the older members of the Bach family, Pachelbel or many others – they all offer great musical experiences if one engages with them and understands them in the context of their time of origin. Many works have not only been made academically accessible in recent decades; they are also now available in excellent recordings in historical performance practice. Streaming services now also offer many such recordings. In addition, the music state of Thuringia invites visitors to become directly acquainted with the diverse musical tradition of the numerous baroque courts, the widely ramified Bach family of musicians, and the baroque organ tradition that is tangible in many of the state’s churches.
Bauer, Martin: Bürgerbuch der Stadt Erfurt 1670-1760. Berlin 2002 (=Schriftenreihe der Stiftung Stoye, Bd. 37).
Brück, Helga: Die “Bache”. Zur Geschichte der Erfurter Stadtmusikanten. In: Rat der Stadt Erfurt (Hg.): Aus der Vergangenheit der Stadt Erfurt, Neue Folge. 4 (1988), S. 32-43.
Orth, Siegfried: Johann Pachelbel – sein Leben und Wirken in Erfurt. In: Aus der Vergangenheit der Stadt Erfurt Reihe II. 2.4 (1957), S. 101-121.
Bach-Wohnhäuser am Junkersand Erfurt (Online unter: https://www.bach-thueringen.de/resources?otg-node-id=910322602048-aggj, letzter Abruf: 03.11.2021).
Johann Pachelbel. Organist und Komponist. In: Neu beginnen. Sechs evangelische Persönlichkeiten aus Bayern. Ein Beitrag der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche in Bayern zur Weltausstellung Reformation 2017 in Wittenberg. (Online unter: http://wittenberg.luther2017-bayern.de/pachelbel/, letzter Abruf: 03.11.2021).
St. Rochus Friedhof Nürnberg. (Online unter: http://www.st-johannisfriedhof-nuernberg.de/st-rochusfriedhof_prominente.html, letzter Abruf: 03.11.2021).
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