Johann Pachelbel: Complete Works

See also Pachelbel Street and the compilation by Klas Grönqvist

The following information is excerpted from the Pachelbel page on Wikipedia.

Keyboard music

Much of Pachelbel’s liturgical organ music, particularly the chorale preludes, is relatively simple and written for manuals only, no pedal is required. This is partly due to Lutheran religious practice where congregants sang the chorales. Household instruments like virginals or clavichords accompanied the singing, so Pachelbel and many of his contemporaries made music playable using these instruments. The quality of the organs Pachelbel used also played a role: south German instruments were not, as a rule, as complex and as versatile as the north German ones, and Pachelbel’s organs must have only had around 15–25 stops on two manuals (compare to Buxtehude’s Marienkirche instrument with 52 stops, 15 of them in the pedal). Finally, neither the Nuremberg nor the southern German organ tradition endorsed extensive use of pedals seen in the works by composers of the northern German school.

Only two volumes of Pachelbel’s organ music were published and distributed during his lifetime: Musikalische Sterbens-Gedancken (Musical Thoughts on Death; Erfurt, 1683) – a set of chorale variations in memory of his deceased wife and child, and Acht Choräle (Nuremberg, 1693). Pachelbel employedwhite mensural notation when writing out numerous compositions (several chorales, all ricercars, some fantasias); a notational system that uses hollow noteheads and omits bar lines (measure delimiters). The system had been widely used since the 15th century but was gradually being replaced in this period by modern notation (sometimes called black notation). In most cases Pachelbel used white notation for pieces composed in old-fashioned styles, to provide artistic integrity.


Chorales constitute almost half of Pachelbel’s surviving organ works, in part because of his Erfurt job duties which required him to compose chorale preludes on a regular basis. The models Pachelbel used most frequently are the three-part cantus firmus setting, the chorale fugue and, most importantly, a model he invented which combined the two types. This latter type begins with a brief chorale fugue that is followed by a three- or four-part cantus firmus setting. Chorale phrases are treated one at a time, in the order in which they occur; frequently, the accompanying voices anticipate the next phrase by using bits of the melody in imitative counterpoint. An example from Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist:

The piece begins with a chorale fugue (not shown here) that turns into a four-part chorale setting which starts at bar 35. The slow-moving chorale (the cantus firmus, i.e., the originalhymn tune) is in the soprano, and is highlighted in blue. The lower voices anticipate the shape of the second phrase of the chorale in an imitative fashion (notice the distinctive pattern of two repeated notes). Pachelbel wrote numerous chorales using this model (Auf meinen lieben GottAch wie elend ist unsre ZeitWenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist, etc.), which soon became a standard form.

A distinctive feature of almost all of Pachelbel’s chorale preludes is his treatment of the melody: the cantus firmus features virtually no figuration or ornamentation of any kind, always presented in the plainest possible way in one of the outer voices. Pachelbel’s knowledge of both ancient and contemporary chorale techniques is reflected in Acht Choräle zum Praeambulieren, a collection of eight chorales he published in 1693. It included, among other types, several chorales written using outdated models. Of these, Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren (Psalm 103) is based on the German polyphonic song; it is one of the very few Pachelbel chorales with cantus firmus in the tenor. Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott is a three-part setting with melodic ornamentation of the chorale melody, which Pachelbel employed very rarely. Finally, Jesus Christus, unser Heiland der von uns is a typical bicinium chorale with one of the hands playing the unadorned chorale while the other provides constant fast-paced accompaniment written mostly in sixteenth notes. Pachelbel only used the bicinium form in two other pieces.

Pachelbel wrote more than one hundred fugues on free themes. These fall into two categories: some 30 free fugues and around 90 of the so-called Magnificat Fugues. His fugues are usually based on non-thematic material, and are shorter than the later model (of which those of J.S. Bach are a prime example). The contrapuntal devices of stretto, diminution and inversion are not employed in any of them. Nevertheless, Pachelbel’s fugues display a tendency towards a more unified, subject-dependent structure which was to become the key element of late Baroque fugues. Given the number of fugues he composed and the extraordinary variety of subjects he used, Pachelbel is regarded as one of the key composers in the evolution of the form. He was also the first major composer to pair a fugue with a preludial movement (a toccata or a prelude) – this technique was adopted by later composers and was used extensively by J.S. Bach.

The Magnificat Fugues were all composed during Pachelbel’s final years in Nuremberg. The singing of the Magnificat at Vespers was usually accompanied by the organist, and earlier composers provided examples of Magnificat settings for organ, based on themes from the chant. Pachelbel’s fugues, however, are almost all based on free themes and it is not yet understood exactly where they fit during the service. It is possible that they served to help singers establish pitch, or simply act as introductory pieces played before the beginning of the service. There are 95 pieces extant, covering all eight church modes: 23 in primi toni, 10 in secundi toni, 11 in tertii toni, 8 in quarti toni, 12 in quinti toni, 10 in sexti toni, 8 in septimi toni and 13 in octavi toni. Although a few two- and four-voice works are present, most employ three voices (sometimes expanding to four-voice polyphony for a bar or two). With the exception of the three double fugues (primi toni No. 12, sexti toni No. 1 and octavi toni No. 8), all are straightforward pieces, frequently in common time and comparatively short – at an average tempo, most take around a minute and a half to play.

Although most of them are brief, the subjects are extremely varied (see Example 1). Frequently some form of note repetition is used to emphasize a rhythmic (rather than melodic) contour. Many feature a dramatic leap (up to an octave), which may or may not be mirrored in one of the voices sometime during an episode – a characteristic Pachelbel technique, although it was also employed by earlier composers, albeit less pronounced. Minor alterations to the subject between the entries are observed in some of the fugues, and simple countersubjects occur several times. An interesting technique employed in many of the pieces is an occasional resort to style brisé for a few bars, both during episodes and in codas. The double fugues exhibit a typical three-section structure: fugue on subject 1, fugue on subject 2, and the counterpoint with simultaneous use of both subjects.

Most of Pachelbel’s free fugues are in three or four voices, with the notable exception of two biciniapieces that were probably intended for teaching purposes. Pachelbel frequently used repercussion subjects of different kinds, with note repetition sometimes extended to span a whole measure (such as in the subject of a G minor fugue, see illustration). Some of the fugues employ textures more suited for the harpsichord, particularly those with broken chord figuration. The threericercars Pachelbel composed, that are more akin to his fugues than to ricercars by Frescobaldi or Froberger, are perhaps more technically interesting. In the original sources, all three use white notation and are marked alla breve. The polythematic C minor ricercar is the most popular and frequently performed and recorded. It is built on two contrasting themes (a slow chromatic pattern and a lively simplistic motif) which appear in their normal and inverted forms and concludes with both themes appearing simultaneously. The F-sharp minor ricercar uses the same concept and is slightly more interesting musically: the key of F-sharp minor requires a more flexible tuning than the standard meantone temperament of the Baroque era and was therefore rarely used by contemporary composers. This means that Pachelbel may have used his own tuning system, of which little is known. Ricercare in C major is probably an early work, mostly in three voices and employing the same kind of writing with consecutive thirds as seen in Pachelbel’s toccatas.

Pachelbel’s use of repercussion subjects and extensive repeated note passages may be regarded as another characteristic feature of his organ pieces. Extreme examples of note repetition in the subject are found in magnificat fugues: quarti toni No. 4 has eight repeated notes, octavi toni No. 6 has twelve. Also, even a fugue with an ordinary subject can rely on strings of repeated notes, as it happens, for example, in magnificat fugue octavi toni No. 12:

Chaconnes and variations

Pachelbel’s apparent affinity for variation form is evident from his organ works that explore the genre:chaconnes, chorale variations and several sets of arias with variations. The six chaconnes, together with Buxtehude’s ostinato organ works, represent a shift from the older chaconne style: they completely abandon the dance idiom, introduce contrapuntal density, employ miscellaneous chorale improvisation techniques, and, most importantly, give the bass line much thematic significance for the development of the piece. Pachelbel’s chaconnes are distinctly south German in style; the duple meter C major chaconne (possibly an early work) is reminiscent of Kerll’s D minor passacaglia. The remaining five works are all in triple meter and display a wide variety of moods and techniques, concentrating on melodic content (as opposed to the emphasis on harmonic complexity and virtuosity in Buxtehude’s chaconnes). The ostinato bass is not necessarily repeated unaltered throughout the piece and is sometimes subjected to minor alterations and ornamentation. The D major, D minor and F minor chaconnes are among Pachelbel’s most well-known organ pieces, and the latter is often cited as his best organ work.

In 1699 Pachelbel published Hexachordum Apollinis (the title is a reference to Apollo’s lyre), a collection of six variations set in different keys. It is dedicated to composers Ferdinand Tobias Richter (a friend from the Vienna years) and Dieterich Buxtehude. Each set follows the “aria and variations” model, arias numbered Aria prima through Aria sexta (“first” through “sixth”). The final piece, which is also the most well-known today, is subtitled Aria Sebaldina, a reference to St. Sebaldus Church where Pachelbel worked at the time. Most of the variations are in common time, with Aria Sebaldina and its variations being the only notable exceptions–they are in 3/4 time. The pieces explore a wide range of variation techniques.

Pachelbel’s other variation sets include a few arias and an arietta (a short aria) with variations and a few pieces designated as chorale variations. Four works of the latter type were published in Erfurt in 1683 under the title Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (“Musical Thoughts on Death”), which might refer to Pachelbel’s first wife’s death in the same year. This was Pachelbel’s first published work and it is now partially lost. These pieces, along with Georg Böhm’s works, may or may not have influenced Johann Sebastian Bach’s early organ partitas.


About 20 toccatas by Pachelbel survive, including several brief pieces referred to as toccatinas in the Perreault catalogue. They are characterized by consistent use of pedal point: for the most part, Pachelbel’s toccatas consist of relatively fast passagework in both hands over sustained pedal notes. Although a similar technique is employed in toccatas by Froberger and Frescobaldi’s pedal toccatas, Pachelbel distinguishes himself from these composers by having no sections with imitative counterpoint–in fact, unlike most toccatas from the early and middle Baroque periods, Pachelbel’s contributions to the genre are not sectional, unless rhapsodic introductory passages in a few pieces (most notably the E minor toccata) are counted as separate sections. Furthermore, no other Baroque composer used pedal point with such consistency in toccatas.

Many of Pachelbel’s toccatas explore a single melodic motif, and later works are written in a simple style in which two voices interact over sustained pedal notes, and said interaction – already much simpler than the virtuosic passages in earlier works – sometimes resorts to consecutive thirds, sixths or tenths. Compare the earlier D major toccata, with passages in the typical middle Baroque style, with one of the late C major toccatas:

Opening bars of Toccata in C major. Two-voice motivic interplay, based on the melody introduced in the first bar, is reduced to consecutive thirds in the last two bars. The piece continues in a similar manner, with basic motivic interaction in two voices and occasional consecutive thirds or sixths.

Sometimes a bar or two of consecutive thirds embellish the otherwise more complex toccata-occasionally there is a whole section written in that manner; and a few toccatas (particularly one of the D minor and one of the G minor pieces) are composed using only this technique, with almost no variation. Partly due to their simplicity, the toccatas are very accessible works; however, the E minor and C minor ones which receive more attention than the rest are in fact slightly more complex.

Pachelbel composed six fantasias. Three of them (the A minor, C major and one of the two D Dorianpieces) are sectional compositions in 3/2 time; the sections are never connected thematically; the other D Dorian piece’s structure is reminiscent of Pachelbel’s magnificat fugues, with the main theme accompanied by two simple countersubjects.

The E-flat major and G minor fantasias are variations on the Italian toccata di durezze e ligaturegenre. Both are gentle free-flowing pieces featuring intricate passages in both hands with manyaccidentals, close to similar pieces by Girolamo Frescobaldi or Giovanni de Macque.


Almost all pieces designated as preludes resemble Pachelbel’s toccatas closely, since they too feature virtuosic passagework in one or both hands over sustained notes. However, most of the preludes are much shorter than the toccatas: the A minor prelude (pictured below) only has 9 bars, the G major piece has 10. The only exception is one of the two D minor pieces, which is very similar to Pachelbel’s late simplistic toccatas, and considerably longer than any other prelude. The toccata idiom is completely absent, however, in the short Prelude in A minor:

A texture of similar density is also found in the ending of the shorter D minor piece, where three voices engage in imitative counterpoint. In pairs of preludes and fugues Pachelbel aimed to separate homophonic, improvisatory texture of the prelude from the strict counterpoint of the fugue.

Other keyboard music

Around 20 dance suites transmitted in a 1683 manuscript (now destroyed) were previously attributed to Pachelbel, but today his authorship is questioned for all but three suites, numbers 29, 32 and 33B in the Seiffert edition. The pieces are clearly not without French influence (but not so much as Buxtehude’s) and are comparable in terms of style and technique to Froberger’s suites. Seventeen keys are used, including F-sharp minor. Number 29 has all four traditional movements, the other two authentic pieces only have three (no gigue), and the rest follow the classical model (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande,Gigue), sometimes updated with an extra movement (usually less developed), a more modern dance such as a gavotte or a ballet. All movements are inbinary form, except for two arias.

Chamber music

Pachelbel’s chamber music is much less virtuosic than Biber’s Mystery Sonatas or Buxtehude’s Opus 1 and Opus 2 chamber sonatas. The famous Canon in D belongs to this genre, as it was originally scored for 3 violins and a basso continuo, and paired with a gigue in the same key. The canon is actually more of a chaconne or a passacaglia: it consists of a ground bass over which the violins play a three-voice canon based on a simple theme, the violins’ parts form 28 variations of the melody. The gigue which originally accompanied the canon is a simple piece that uses strict fugal writing.

Each suite of Musikalische Ergötzung begins with an introductory Sonata or Sonatina in one movement. In suites 1 and 3 these introductory movements are Allegro three-voice fughettas and stretti. The other four sonatas are reminiscent of French overtures. They have two Adagio sections which juxtapose slower and faster rhythms: the first section uses patterns of dotted quarter and eighth notes in a non-imitative manner. The second employs the violins in an imitative, sometimes homophonic structure, that uses shorter note values. The dance movements of the suites show traces of Italian (in the gigues of suites 2 and 6) and German (allemande appears in suites 1 and 2) influence, but the majority of the movements are clearly influenced by the French style. The suites do not adhere to a fixed structure: the allemande is only present in two suites, the gigues in four, two suites end with a chaconne, and the fourth suite contains two arias.

Pachelbel’s other chamber music includes an aria and variations (Aria con variazioni in A major) and four standalone suites scored for a string quartet or a typical French five-part string ensemble with 2 violins, 2 violas and a violone (the latter reinforces the basso continuo). Of these, the five-part suite in G major (Partie a 5 in G major) is a variation suite, where each movement begins with a theme from the opening sonatina; like its four-part cousin (Partie a 4 in G major) and the third standalone suite (Partie a 4 in F-sharp minor) it updates the German suite model by using the latest French dances such as thegavotte or the ballet. The three pieces mentioned all end with a Finale movement. Interestingly, Partie a 4 in G major features no figuration for the lower part, which means that it was not a basso continuo and that, as Jean M. Perreault writes, “this work may well count as the first true string quartet, at least within the Germanophone domain.”

Vocal music

Johann Gottfried Walther famously described Pachelbel’s vocal works as “more perfectly executed than anything before them”. Already the earliest examples of Pachelbel’s vocal writing, two arias So ist denn dies der Tag and So ist denn nur die Treu composed in Erfurt in 1679 (which are also Pachelbel’s earliest datable pieces), display impressive mastery of large-scale composition (So ist denn dies der Tag is scored for soprano, SATB choir, 2 violins, 3 violas, 4 trumpets, timpani and basso continuo) and exceptional knowledge of contemporary techniques.

These latter features are also found in Pachelbel’s Vespers pieces and sacred concertos, large-scale compositions which are probably his most important vocal works. Almost all of them adopt the modern concertato idiom and many are scored for unusually large groups of instruments (Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (in C) uses four trumpets, timpani, 2 violins, 3 violas, violone and basso continuo; Lobet den Herrn in seinem Heiligtum is scored for a five-part chorus, two flutes, bassoon, five trumpets, trombone, drums, cymbals, harp, two violins, basso continuo and organ). Pachelbel explores a very wide range of styles: psalm settings (Gott ist unser Zuversicht), chorale concertos (Christ lag in Todesbanden), sets of chorale variations (Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan), concerted motets, etc. The ensembles for which these works are scored are equally diverse: from the famous D major Magnificat setting written for a 4-part choir, 4 violas and basso continuo, to the Magnificat in C major scored for a five-part chorus, 4 trumpets, timpani, 2 violins, a single viola and two violas da gamba, bassoon, basso continuo and organ.

Pachelbel’s large-scale vocal works are mostly written in modern style influenced by Italian Catholic music, with only a few non-concerted pieces and oldplainchant cantus firmus techniques employed very infrequently. The string ensemble is typical for the time, three viols and two violins. The former are either used to provide harmonic content in instrumental sections or to double the vocal lines in tutti sections; the violins either engage in contrapuntal textures of varying density or are employed for ornamentation. Distinct features of Pachelbel’s vocal writing in these pieces, aside from the fact that it is almost always very strongly tonal, include frequent use of permutation fugues and writing for paired voices. The Magnificat settings, most composed during Pachelbel’s late Nuremberg years, are influenced by the Italian-Viennese style and distinguish themselves from their antecedents by treating the canticle in a variety of ways and stepping away from text-dependent composition.

Other vocal music includes motets, arias and two masses. Of the eleven extant motets, ten are scored for two four-part choruses. Most of this music is harmonically simple and makes little use of complex polyphony (indeed, the polyphonic passages frequently feature reduction of parts). The texts are taken from the psalms, except in Nun danket alle Gott which uses a short passage from the Ecclesiastes. The motets are structured according to the text they use. One important feature found in Gott ist unser Zuversicht and Nun danket alle Gott is that their endings are four-part chorale settings reminiscent of Pachelbel’s organ chorale model: the chorale, presented in long note values, is sung by the sopranos, while the six lower parts accompany with passages in shorter note values:

The arias, aside from the two 1679 works discussed above, are usually scored for solo voice accompanied by several instruments; most were written for occasions such as weddings, birthdays, funerals and baptisms. They include both simple strophic and complex sectional pieces of varying degrees of complexity, some include sections for chorus. The concerted Mass in C major is probably an early work; the D major Missa brevis is a small mass for a SATB choir in three movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo). It is simple, unadorned and reminiscent of his motets.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

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