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A Pachelbel musical pilgrimage in America

Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, is the birthday (or at least the baptism day) of another pilgrim: Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750). He was the son of Johann Pachelbel, German composer and organist, whose now-ubiquitous Canon in D represents but a sliver of an illustrious career. The younger Pachelbel cast his lot in what was a relatively new arena: America.

Pachelbel’s is a life glimpsed only in tantalizing snapshots. (Even his relationship to his famous father was only uncovered in the 1930s.) Pachelbel spent his first 30-some years in Europe; apart from an accomplished (and still-performed) eight-voice “Magnificat,” his life in that time is a blank record. Given his smooth transition into Colonial American society (and his adoption of “Charles” over “Karl”), he probably spent time in England before crossing the Atlantic.


The date of his emigration is vague. His brother, Johann Michael Pachelbel, apparently performed at the 1728 installation of Robert Hunter as governor of Jamaica; perhaps the Pachelbels traveled together. But Charles Theodore’s first definitive presence here comes in 1733, when, living in Boston, he advertised his services as a teacher of the spinet and harpsichord.

That year, Trinity Church in Newport hired Pachelbel to help install a new organ; either Pachelbel’s reputation preceded him, or he had been establishing it in Boston for some time. Pachelbel remained in Newport as organist for two years, presumably leaving over money. (Trinity was notably stingy about paying its organists.) He moved to New York, organizing that city’s first recorded concerts in 1736 — “the harpsichord part performed by himself,” the advertisement promised.

The success of the venture is unknown, but a year later, Pachelbel had settled in Charleston, S.C. He got married, played the organ at St. Philip’s Church, concertized, and, in 1749, opened a singing school. It was a short-lived endeavor. Pachelbel became ill (church records cite “a lameness in his hands”) and died in 1750. He had assimilated to Colonial life in more ways than one: Among his property at his death were two slaves.


Besides his “Magnificat,” only two other of his works survived: a brief minuet and a song. It is a fragmentary bequest from an early bridge between American and European musical culture. (Musicologist Karl Kroeger speculated that, when Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, Pachelbel was probably the only person in America who even knew who Bach was.) Such is history’s capriciousness: Pachelbel traversed much of the country’s Colonial rise, but left few footprints.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.