Baroque Musical Delight from Britney Spears’ Forefather

Vermeer painted a girl at her virginal at Pachelbel's time.
Vermeer painted a girl at her virginal at Pachelbel’s time.

They did it again! My favourite French Baroque ensemble Gli Incogniti dug out a little known composer and presented quite recently a delightful album I immediately fell in love withy. “Musikalische Ergötzung” (Musical Delight), P. 370-375, P. 450 is the title that Johann Pachelbel gave a set of six suites for two violins and basso continuo*, composed in 1695 in his German home town Nuremberg.

Pachelbel has become famous for his canon in D major. The related chords have been used much later by… Aerosmith, Oasis, Fleetwood Mac, Britney Spears, Petula Clark and Ozzy Osbourne! Given the complexity of Baroque music or the style of the Vienna School, it is hard to imagine that today’s rock/pop/rap musicians can come up with something that hasn’t been around for 200 or 300 years. So far for creativity…

Gifted, studious, creative, busy

Pachelbel had to be creative. He showed a special musical aptitude very early, and in 1669, at the age of 16, he started his musical studies and performed right away as an organist at his school. Four years later, he was appointed assistant organist at the Stephansdom in Vienna. Here, he was taught by Johann Kaspar Krell, himself a pupil of the Italian Renaissance School. Krells’ influence had a lasting effect on Pachelbel’s style. His works are written like Italian cantilenas, marked by lyrical melodies.

Staying with the Bach family

Pachebel’s first full post as a church musician took him to Eisenach, where Johann Sebastian Bach would start his musical career a few years later. That was in 1677. During his stay, he befriended Johann Christoph Bach and Ambrosius Bach, the grandfather and the father of J. S. Bach respectively. A few years later, Pachelbel moved on to Erfurt, where he stayed at the house of Johann Christian Bach, J. S. Bach’s granduncle. In 1695, he finally returned to Nuremberg.

Back to Nuremberg

Oxford Online Music notes that “contrary to the usual practice, the position [of composer-organist] at St Sebaldus, the most important [position] of its kind in Nuremberg, was not filled by examination, nor were the organists of the city’s lesser churches invited to apply.” Pachelbel’s job description required him to produce a large number of pieces of sacred music to accompany church services: cantatas, motets, fugues, choral music, masses, music for vespers.

French, Italian and German style

Besides liturgical music, he wrote for the organ, harpsichord, chamber ensembles and solo singer. The piece “Musikalische Ergötzung” is one of the less numerous non-religious works. They were typically composed for festive occasions:  the birth of a child, a wedding, New Year etc. The French musicologist and violinist Olivier Fourés explains in the liner notes of Gli Incogniti’s new album “Un orage d’avril” (April Storm) that the six suites consist of three dances each mixing French, Italian and German style with an emphasis on counterpoint*.

All six suites are lovely little pieces reminding me of some of the less complex works by Georg Friedrich Händel. My preference goes to the suite in C major, the one in C minor and the one in E-flat major. And yes, the famous canon in D major is also on the album. Let’s see if you can find the part stolen by Britney Spears!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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