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Pachelbel: Vespers

The King's Singers, Charivari Agréable, Kah-Ming Ng (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2009
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Hunter
Engineered by Adrian Hunter
Release date: March 2010
Total duration: 72 minutes 27 seconds

Interpreted by the King's Singers and Charivari Agréable, this selection of Vespers movements written by the organist Johann Pachelbel have in common the distinctively sonorous scoring of four or five-part choir, accompanied by a six-part string orchestra to which is added, at the composer’s express request, a bassoon.


'The marriage of the King's Singers and Charivari Agréable has created the 'dream-team' for this enchanting addition to the late middle-Baroque repertoire … the ensemble is unbeatable. The six King's Singers blend superbly, yet each becomes distinctive and expressive in their prominent moments' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'For those who know Pachelbel only through the Canon, this album will be revelatory. The music, unearthed and edited by Kah-Ming Ng, comes from a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library. It’s not a complete Vespers setting, but includes five settings of the Ingressus and two Magnificats, all composed for a rich-textured ensemble of voices, strings and continuo. The influence of Monteverdi is evident in the music’s contrasts of scoring and of mood, and in the sheer delight Pachelbel takes in writing virtuoso passage work. But there’s also some counterpoint that looks forward to Bach. Each piece is beautifully served by the ensemble' (The Sunday Times)

'A fascinating album of Vespers movements by a Thuringian organist of canonic status: Johann Pachelbel. Composed while Pachelbel was organist at Nuremberg's Sebalduskirche, these works conform to the liturgical practices of the South German early reformation. Elements of the choral writing sound not unlike that of Pachelbel's predecessor Schiitz—though director Ng's informative and well-researched liner notes point out that Pachelbel would have absorbed the concerted Italianate style while an apprentice in Vienna. Charivari Agréable is on excellent form, here, with sensitive leadership from Bojan Cicic and supportive continuo playing. The King's Singers are equally stylish, though miked far too close for comfort' (Classical Music Magazine)
The music contained on this album represents a selection of Vespers movements written by the organist Johann Pachelbel. They have in common the distinctively sonorous scoring of four or five-part choir, accompanied by a six-part string orchestra to which is added, at the composer’s express request, a bassoon. The manuscripts of most of Pachelbel’s Vespers music are to be found in the Tenbury collection of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. That Oxford should come to be the unique source might be related to a concatenation of unforeseen twists of fate and fortune. The Vespers might never have come to be written had Pachelbel been successful in his attempts at being a court musician. And had his second surviving son Carl Theodorus not abandoned his fatherland for the New World, the Vespers might never have fetched up in Oxford.

Carl Theodorus would have been his fourth son, but both Pachelbel’s first son and wife died in 1683, victims of the most vicious plague in Germany’s history since the time of the Black Death and the Thirty Years War. Its epicentre, Erfurt, lost half its population within a couple of years. Pachelbel commemorated his devastating familial losses by publishing in the same year a set of keyboard chorale variations entitled Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken. The bitterness of such tragedy did not, however, deter Pachelbel from remarrying in 1684: thereafter followed another son, stillborn, before Wilhelm Hieronymus arrived in 1686, followed two years later by a daughter Amalia.

Erfurt was one of Thuringia’s most important and prosperous cities. At the heart of the Reformation, Erfurt University’s most famous alumnus was Martin Luther. When in June 1678 Pachelbel took up the position of organist at the Predigerkirche, he was to remain in the city for 12 years, his longest tenure in any one place. There he first lodged in the home of Johann Christian Bach, director of the town musicians, probably in the same room that had been occupied by Johann Christian’s first cousin Johann Ambrosius Bach, father of the famous Johann Sebastian. Pachelbel’s connections with the Bachs were intricate: he later bought the house from Christian’s widow, and Pachelbel was godfather to Johann Sebastian’s sister, Johanna Juditha, and teacher to their eldest brother Johann Christoph.

The demands of his new position would have been a welcome relief, for Pachelbel had just wasted a whole year, from May 1677, as court organist in Eisenach, the ancestral foraging ground of the Bach clan. His prospects fizzled out when the court went into mourning after the death of his patron’s brother. It turned out not to be the hoped-for graduate job which might showcase the gifts of a progressive composer who had cut his teeth serving as Vicarius (assistant) to the organist of the Stephansdom in Vienna. Here he met (and probably studied with) Johann Caspar Kerll, who moved to Vienna also in 1673.

Better than Eisenach, Erfurt nonetheless had its drawbacks. Pachelbel’s contractual obligations—in addition to the musical, directorial, administrative and pedagogic duties required of organists of major congregations—included an annual re-audition on the anniversary of his appointment, during which half-hour recital he was expected to demonstrate his vocational progress by drawing on the resources of the organ in ‘delightful and euphonious harmony’. Unlike Johann Sebastian Bach, Pachelbel, nevertheless, kept on the good side of the city and church authorities, flourishing as an outstandingly successful organist, composer and teacher. Eventually the needs of his growing family prompted Pachelbel to consider a change of environment. His feelers stretched to the court of Württemberg, then ruled by the regent Duchess Magdalena Sibylla von Hesse-Darmstadt. Pachelbel was released from service in the nick of time, arriving in 1690 at Stuttgart three months before the birth of Carl Theodorus. Pious and musical (given, occasionally, to composing hymns), the duchess was unfortunate to have been married into a family with a worrying medical history. Her father-in-law Eberhard III died of a stroke six months after her wedding, which promptly elevated her to Herzogin; three years later, she was widowed when Duke Wilhelm Ludwig died of a heart attack.

There is no record of Pachelbel’s productivity during his sojourn in Stuttgart, which in any case could scarcely have been conducive to musical endeavour. Württemberg’s foreign policy was conducted by the co-regent, the duchess’s brother-in-law Duke Friedrich Carl, who initially managed to extract from France a generous subsidy for standing aloof from the nine-year War of the Palatinate Succession (a.k.a. the War of the League of Augsburg, the first war in which no German prince fought on the French side). The duchy’s neutrality—initially brokered but ultimately scuppered by the newly-created Elector of Hanover—collapsed, and Württemberg, which landed on the wrong side of the fence, found itself in the crossfire as King Louis XIV set out to consolidate his gains in the Holy Roman Empire before the Emperor Leopold I could extricate himself from war with the Turks. Friedrich Carl fled at the start of the war in 1688 to Nuremberg with his nephew Eberhard Ludwig, but was eventually captured by the French in 1692 and brought to Versailles.

With Württemberg serving as a doormat for the criss-crossing armies, primarily the French Blitzkrieg on Bavaria—whose claim to the see of Cologne ignited the whole affair—and the ravaging of the Palatinate, Pachelbel was forced to flee the ducal capital of Stuttgart. Yet there may have been another reason for his hasty departure. With the co-regent in the clutches of the French, the duchess petitioned Emperor Leopold to proclaim her son Eberhard Ludwig duke of Württemberg even before he had reached his majority. The emperor acceded to the request in 1693, and the new 16-year old duke embarked on a career of an absolute prince, in the process becoming widely regarded as weak and philistine, and preferring hunting to governing. No wonder that Pachelbel turned down a request to return to Stuttgart, even after things had quietened down after the young duke’s installation and the release of the duke’s uncle Friedrich Carl in France.

Following the example of the regent of Württemberg, Pachelbel, sought refuge in his hometown of Nuremberg. There he was immediately snapped up by Erfurt’s neighbouring town of Gotha as municipal organist at the Margarethenkirche. He did not stay long though. Immediately after the death of Georg Caspar Wecker—organist of Nuremberg’s Sebalduskirche, whose pupils had included Pachelbel himself, as well as Johann Krieger—the authorities in Nuremberg contrived to parachute their celebrated son Pachelbel into the plummiest position they had to offer. This fait accompli was brought about by circumventing the usual audition, and dispensing with the courtesy of inviting the organists of the city’s lesser churches to apply.

The influence of the post-reformation church on daily life can never be overstated. High festival days were ‘great days of fasting, penitence and prayer’: all commerce and trade had to stop during the service in order to ‘promote devotion’. St Sebald’s, much of which liturgy was still sung in Latin, offered the most musically sumptuous presentation of Vespers in the whole of Protestant Germany. Underlying this may have been an issue of rivalry. In Leipzig Georg Philipp Telemann’s newer theatrical style of music for the Neukirche enticed worshippers to defect from the Thomaskirche, causing the cantor of the local Latin school Johann Kuhnau in 1709 to voice his concern that the ‘carnal desires of the worldly-minded’ had wafted into church music.

German Protestant vocal church music can be broken into several discrete repertories. The lowest common denominator is the simple unison chorale; for the somewhat more sophisticated congregation, there is the motet (in parts, with accompaniment); the most prestigious and thus costliest to put on—as this involves professionals—is the concerted music or cantata. That David Schedlich was also writing concerted Vespers for the Lorenzkirche in the 1690s might not simply have been competition with St Sebald or St Egidien; it may well have been a manifestation of Nuremberg’s observance to the letter of Martin Luther’s reforms, among which was the preservation the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and Latin Mass. Not only did Luther not want the devil to have the best tunes, but he—a gifted musician in his own right—emphatically encouraged vocal and instrumental church music, positioning this ‘excellent gift of God…next to theology’ and awarding it the ‘highest praise’ possible. He clearly appreciated the power of a well-executed musical performance in facilitating the clergy’s communication with the congregation.

The elaborate Vespers liturgy of the St Sebald conformed to the altkirchlich practices of the early Reformation, with some modifications of the original Catholic rite. Beginning with the opening versicle ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende’ [referred to in Lutheran terminology as the Ingressus], and the response ‘Domine ad adjuvandum me festina’, there follows a sequence of psalms, hymns and motets (often replaced by sacred songs in the German vernacular), finished off in a flamboyant fashion with a Magnificat. The variety inherent in the service allowed for much use of polyphonic or concerted music—these were opportunities seized by the organist and Director chori musici Pachelbel. By blurring the traditional distinctions of theatre, chamber and church, he simply reflected contemporary tastes in fusing the profane with the sacred. This trend had many champions, numbering among them the devotional poet and pastor Erdmann Neumeister (1671–1756) and the composer–keyboardist polymath Johann Mattheson, both of whom believed that opera’s power to stir the passions could be appropriated for the church. Pachelbel used a panoply of forms and textures to underpin his melodic genius, at the same time blending the south-German idiom with the cosmopolitan Italian style he had absorbed during his apprenticeship in Vienna. His distinctive re-shaping of an older musical tradition affirmed Pachelbel’s status as a seminal giant straddling both late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century German church music.

More is the pity that little is known about the status of his vocal music after his death. Whether his successors at St Sebald let his music lie dormant remains in the realm of speculation; any evidence to the contrary has yet to surface or was presumably destroyed in World War II. Given there is little to suggest that the provisions for concerted Latin Mass and Vespers had been scaled down, the person best placed to revive Pachelbel’s music would have been his eldest surviving son Wilhelm Hieronymus, who arrived at the helm of St Sebald via a circuitous route which traced some of his father’s footsteps. Wilhelm was groomed by his father to audition for the famous Lübeck organist Dietrich Buxtehude, whose linking to the job of a condition of marriage to his daughter drove away some serious contenders, viz. Wilhelm’s exact contemporaries J. S. Bach, George Frideric Handel and Johann Mattheson. Wilhelm’s compositional style displays little influence of his father—nor, for that matter, any signs of originality—and so it leaves us to conjecture as to his view about the continuing value of his father’s music in a world where tastes were rapidly changing.

Nevertheless, it is hard to resist the temptation to draw parallels with the Bach family. J. S. Bach’s considerable Nachlaß (musical estate) was carved up between his widow Anna Magdalena and two eldest sons. The first, also named Wilhelm (Friedemann), ‘got most of it’ (according to the biographer Johann Nicolaus Forkel), and eventually he sold off piecemeal the contents of his father’s (and also his own) library, thus leaving his family in penury. Musicologists rue with ill-concealed dismay the cycles of cantatas, keyboard pieces and chamber music squandered into oblivion by Wilhelm, notwithstanding his brilliance as an inspired improviser and composer for the keyboard. Bach’s second son—perhaps not co-incidentally named—Carl (Philipp Emanuel) was a considerably more successful career musician. Fortunately for posterity, C.P.E. was a keen archivist of his family’s works, and his extensive collection was eventually lodged in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

A seemingly worthier custodian of his own inheritance was Carl Theodorus Pachelbel, who packed a bunch of manuscripts on his immigration to the colonies. The scores he offloaded at the halfway pit-stop of London appear to be fair (and, therefore, reference) copies, quite possibly written in Carl’s hand and that of his father (in which case they would be autographs). They bear few scars associated with the wear and tear of use, with the exception of some gnaw marks, presumably from rodents, thus occasioning some musical reconstruction by the author of this essay. Germany experienced in 1720–50 a population spurt that returned to the status quo ante bellum of the beginning of the seventeenth-century. What turned out to be the vanguard of America’s German colony were emigrants from the Palatinate who were trying to escape the wars of Louis XIV: more than 13,000 left in 1709 alone. The tide continued unstemmed from other German provinces, and between 1727 and 1754 some 2000 a year arrived via Rotterdam and London, the disaffected demographics ranging from Pietists to Silesian refugees. By 1750 the number of German settlers in the British colonies is estimated to have reached 100,000. Such a wealth of human resources prompted the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania to advertise in German newspapers, soliciting settlers for the western frontiers. Despite the misery of traversing mountains, and dangers of crossing oceans, the promise of a free and vast New World proved too alluring for those seeking escape from natural catastrophes, epidemics, crop failures, food supply crises, overpopulation, lack of farmland, economic depression, religious persecution, military conscription, and forced labour.

Carl Theodorus (now known as Charles Theodore Patchable or Perchival) headed for the German settlements. He is first recorded assisting in the installation of a new organ in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1733. In 1736 he gave one of the first publicly-advertised concerts in New York, followed a year later by a harpsichord recital in Charleston, South Carolina, which he made his home after becoming organist of St Philip’s Church in 1740. Tenure thus secured, he advertised in 1749 his plans to open a singing school. Alas, soon after this, he was ‘afflicted with a lameness in his hands’ and died within a year.

There was evidently neither occasion nor talent to perform his father’s Vespers music, for their style would in any case have been at odds with the prevailing Protestant propensity for gravity, simplicity and restraint. Just as well then that he left the scores in London, already one of the publishing powerhouses of Europe as well as an international clearing house for music. The earliest documented mention of the Vespers is in a sale catalogue for an auction conducted in 1779 by Christie & Ansell, in which is also noted the purchase by the organist Marmaduke Overend of his teacher William Boyce’s collection. The manuscripts subsequently passed through several owners before finally being purchased by St Michael’s, Tenbury. When the college closed, its impressive library passed to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Boyce would have been too young to acquire the scores for himself, for he was still apprenticed to Maurice Greene in the early 1730s. Greene, however, had both the means (being of gentry stock) and the inclination. He had hoped—forlornly, it turned out—to present a comprehensive collection of ancient and modern church music to every cathedral in the country; his entire library was bequeathed to Boyce. Another plausible route may have been through Boyce’s other teacher Johann Christoph Pepusch, the leading German émigré in London who Carl Theodorus would undoubtedly have called on, perhaps with a view to gauging the market value from such an avid antiquarian, one who had in 1729 given up composing to dedicate the last 23 years of his life to the study of ‘ancient musick’.

Having carted the manuscripts thus far, Carl Theodorus would have been loath to offer them up on a silver platter. The Pachelbel brand would surely not have lost so much of its lustre since 1692, when his father had been headhunted for an organist’s post in Oxford. This curious proposition is mentioned in Mattheson’s indispensable biographical lexicon, the Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (1740), but remains uncorroborated. Johann Pachelbel’s contemporaries and students were in accord about one thing though: he was ‘a perfect and rare virtuoso’, to cite the testimonial of the Eisenach Kapellmeister Daniel Eberlin. The distortion of Pachelbel’s posthumous reputation brought about by his captivating but ubiquitous ‘Canon à 3’—which has obscured his impressive oeuvre of keyboard, chamber and vocal works—can now be corrected by a knowledge of his Vespers. They are an eloquent embodiment of exceptional vocal writing and a fitting fin de siècle summation of all that is endearing about seventeenth-century music. After three centuries of quiescence, Pachelbel’s Vespers may now be restored to the canon of choral masterpieces.

Kah-Ming Ng © 2010

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