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MUSICIAN OF THE MONTH: DID JOHANN PACHELBEL REALLY MAKE A CANNON?

By Amy Cassanitti


Johann Pachelbel was born September 1, 1653, in Nuremburg, Germany. Pachelbel became one of the most prolific composers of sacred and secular music during the middle Baroque era (1630-1700). But surprisingly, he did not come from a musical family. Pachelbel’s father was a moderately successful wine merchant. The family was religious, so his first exposure to music was through the Lutheran Church. Early on Pachelbel demonstrated exceptional musical and academic abilities. He studied the organ before developing his talents as a composer. During his lifetime, Pachelbel focused on playing, teaching, and composing.



Pachelbel’s most important compositions were in the areas of chorale preludes and fugues. Chorale preludes are short compositions written for organ which were possibly used to introduce the hymn about to be sung by the congregation. Among the many challenges of writing a chorale prelude is the requirement to take a familiar melody, add to that melody, but still keep the basic idea of the music, so the congregation can recognize the tune. Pachelbel preferred an uncomplicated style that emphasized melodic and harmonic clarity.



The original meaning of the word fugue is related to the Latin root words meaning “to flee” or “to chase.” A fugue begins with a musical theme or melody. After the first voice, or instrument, is finished, a second voice, or new instrument, repeats the first theme at a different pitch. Successive voices – instruments - repeat in the same way. So, in a sense, the instruments are “chasing” each other with the original musical theme. Pachelbel wrote nearly 100 fugues over the course of his life. Given the number and the variety of melodies he composed, Pachelbel is considered one of the key composers of the form.



Now, about that cannon. First, it’s not a “cannon,” but a “canon.” A “cannon” is a large, heavy piece of artillery mounted on wheels used in battle. A “canon,” as it relates to music, is a type of fugue. A canon begins with a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration. Pachelbel’s most famous canon is called “Canon and Gigue in D for three violins and Basso Continuo.” Though immediately recognizable today, during his lifetime, this canon was not singled out as distinctive, so an exact date of composition is not known.





Pachelbel was one of those rare musicians who was popular and celebrated during and after his lifetime. Pachelbel was extremely prolific; over 530 compositions are attributed to him. He died in early March 1706 at the young age of 52. And yes, he really DID make a canon!

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