In his day, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a respected and popular composer of “Southern German” baroque music. He left a large body of secular and sacred work, such as this pretty Chaconne in F Minor:
Sadly, though, Pachelbel’s work was almost completely forgotten. Oh sure, some of his music would be played from time to time, especially his organ works. But for a couple hundred years, his name was lost in the sea of Bachs, Händels, Telemanns and Scarlattis. Few classical music scholars knew much about him or his work, to say nothing of the general public.
All that changed in 1970, when French conductor Jean-François Paillard recorded a slow, majestic version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D:
Just for fun, contrast Paillard’s overwrought, saccharine version with what many music scholars think the piece actually sounded like in Pachelbel’s day:
In any case, the piece became popular with classical music fans almost overnight, and went mainstream when it was prominently featured in the 1980 film Ordinary People. Since then, the work has become a staple of weddings and 100 Most Beautiful Pieces of Music box sets you see at stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Pachelbel married twice. His first marriage ended when his wife and first son died in a plague outbreak in 1683. Pachelbel remarried a year later, and had two daughters and five sons with his new wife. Two of those sons – Wilhelm Hieronymus and Karl Theodor – became composers like their dad. But history remembers the second son as “Charles Theodore Pachelbel”, not Karl Theodor. And that’s because Charles became one of the first European composers – certainly the first European composer with name recognition – to move to the American colonies.
Exactly why Charles made the move is a complete mystery. We know for sure that he moved to Gotha when he was two, and Nuremberg when he was five. After his father died in 1706, the historical record falls almost silent, except that Charles probably lived in England for a time: his name appears on a list of subscribers to a volume of harpsichord music published in London. And how weird is it that customs or parish records from the time have been lost, but a list of magazine subscribers has survived?
We know that Charles Pachelbel was living in Boston by 1733 because he was asked to consult on the installation of a new pipe organ at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island (the oldest Episcopal church in the state, by the way). Pachelbel lived there for approximately two years, having been hired as church organist. In 1736, he performed two concerts in New York City.
He moved to Charleston some time after March 9, 1736 (the second New York City concert) and February 16, 1737, when he married a woman named Hanna Poitevin at St. Philip’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in South Carolina. This was probably Pachelbel’s second marriage, as there are records which indicate that he already had a daughter. But what happened to her (or a possible wife) is unknown.
Charles Pachelbel lived in “Charles Towne”, as it was known, for the rest of his life. He held what is thought to be the very first public concert in the city on November 22, 1737. He became organist at St. Philip’s in 1740, and opened a singing school, probably the first music school in South Carolina, a year before his death. In 1750 he contracted a disease – recorded as a “lameness of the hands” – and died shortly thereafter. His wife lived on for 19 years, dying on September 6, 1769. He had at least one son – Charles, born on September 10, 1739 – but absolutely nothing is known about him or any of his descendants.
Very little of Charles Pachelbel’s music survives. One of the few pieces is this beautiful Magnificat:
Still, it’s amazing to think that Pachelbel’s son lived just a few hours away from me. I know full well that Johann Pachelbel existed at the same time the American colonies existed… but I’ve just never put 2 and 2 together on this one.
I sent an email to the good people at St. Philip’s in Charleston asking for any additional information they may have about Pachelbel, and will update this article if they reply with anything interesting. I specifically asked if they knew where he was buried, because the current St. Phillip’s isn’t the one Pachelbel knew. The first building was built in 1680 but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1710. A new building – the one Pachelbel knew – was built by 1723, but burned to the ground in 1835. The current building was completed in 1836.
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There is (or was) a music group from New York City called “Anonymous 4”. I always assumed that the group got its name because they specialized in medieval and early Renaissance music written by unknown authors… and there were four of them, Hence, Anonymous 4:
By the way, that chant is in 15th century ENGLISH:
Edi beo thu, hevene quene,
Folkes froure and engles blis,
Moder unwemmed and maiden clene,
Swich in world non other nis.
On thee hit is wel eth sene,
Of all wimmen thu havest thet pris;
Mi swete levedi, her mi bene
And reu of me yif thi wille is.
Come to find out, however, Anonymous IV was a real person, and a very important one, too.
Anonymous IV wrote a treatise about the Notre Dame School of Polyphony, at the time the epicenter of European music:
As the name suggests, no one knows who Anonymous IV was. He was almost certainly male, and almost certainly a student at Notre Dame in Paris. He was very likely English, because his works were discovered at Bury St Edmunds in England. Because of historical references in his work, they can be dated to the 1270s or 1280s.
It’s through Anonymous IV that we know Léonin and Pérotin, the two earliest European composers known by name. Anonymous even helpfully named specific works by them, greatly helping music scholars assign authorship to previously anonymous works. Although Léonin and Pérotin had both been dead for decades by the time Anonymous IV wrote about them, his description seems to indicate that they were still popular at the time, not unlike Elvis is today.
But there’s more than that. Anonymous IV mentions early music theorist Franco of Cologne, and describes several types of chants in detail, like organum and discant. He talks about the rules of music – why things were written they way they were – as well as how notation worked, and various genres that were popular in his day.
It’s all breathtakingly interesting stuff, and you can read a copy of his work (or download it in PDF, EPUB, Kindle and other formats) for free here.