Johann Pachelbel was an acclaimed German composer, organist and teacher who's contribution to the south German organ tradition gained him the title of one of the greatest organ masters of the generation before J.S.Bach. He is widely known as the composer of Canon in D major, for three violins and continuo.
Born in a middle-class family, he first received musical training from Heinrich Schwemmer, a musician and music teacher who later became the cantor of Saint Sebaldus Church. He continued his studies at the University of Altdorf (1669), where he also served as organist at the Lorenzkirche. Due to financial reasons, he was forced to leave the university after less than a year, and became a scholarship student at the Gymnasium poeticum at Regensburg, taking private lessons under Kaspar Prentz.
Having traveled to Vienna in 1673 he received the role of deputy organist at Saint Stephen's Cathedral. In 1677 he became organist in Thuringen at the Eisenach court, where he stayed for slightly over a year. It was here where he met the town's most proeminent musician, Johann Ambrosius Bach (the future father of Johann Sebastian Bach) and with whom he became a close friend.
In 1678, Pachelbel obtained the first of the two important positions he was to hold during his lifetime when he became organist at the Protestant Predigerkirche at Erfurt, where he established his reputation as organist, composer, and teacher. Among his pupils was Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother from whom he took his first formal keyboard lessons.
Johann Pachelbel was one of the dominant figures of late seventeenth-century European keyboard music. An exact contemporary of Georg Muffat he belonged to the generation that included German composers Böhm, Bruhns and Fischer, French composers Raison, Jullien and François Couperin, and the Englishman Purcell, and that came chronologically between Buxtehude and Bach.
He published a small number of his compositions, since copper engraving was an expensive process. His first publication was a collection of four chorales with variations in 1683, which he entitle MusicalischeSterbensgedancken (Musical Thoughts of Death), next in Nuremberg, six Sonatas for two violins and bass, and the collection Musicalische Eigötzung (Musical Rejoicing, circa 1691), eight chorale preludes, Acht Choräle zum Praeambulieren in 1693, and lastly, in 1699, his master work, Hexachordum Apollinis, the Hexachord of Apollo, containing six Arias with variations in six different keys for harpsichord (or organ), including the famous Aria Sebaldina in F minor, and which includes a dedication to Buxtehude and his Vienna contemporary Ferdinand Tobias Richter. Also composed in the final years were Italian-influenced concertato Vespers and a set of more than ninety Magnificat fugues. In 1695 he was appointed organist at the Saint Sebaldus Church in Nürnberg.
Pachelbel's work had a simple contrapuntally style, his organ compositions show a knowledge of Italian forms derived from Frescobaldi. His art found its fullest expression in his treatment of the chorale. He mastered all the forms current at that time for setting chorale melodies.
Contrary to the general knowledge, Pachelbel's legacy isn't the Canon in D major alone, his lifetime work includes chamber music, organ music and church music. Although chamber music represents only a small part of Pachelbel's achievement as a composer, his Canon and Gigue have in recent years won enormous popularity.
As a leading organist, he wrote a considerable amount of organ music, including a series of organ chorales based on well-known Lutheran hymn tunes. Other organ music includes works in forms later used by J.S. Bach: fugues, toccatas, fantasias and a set of six chaconnes. Pachelbel's organ fugues and ricercares reflect the growing interest of Baroque musicians in the learned world of dialogue and formal elaboration, and their tendency to underline the theatrical aspect of the musical discourse through the development of a single underlying motif, the "subject" — at a time when, following the work of Descartes, the focus was on the complexity of the "thinking subject."
As far as church music goes, Pachelbel composed several sacred concertos, works for voices and a small group of instruments. Of special importance are his chorale preludes, which did much to establish the chorale melodies of Protestant northern Germany in the more lyrical musical atmosphere of the Catholic south.
Although the Canon in D is pretty much all he is remembered for now, Pachelbel was massive in the world of keyboard and chamber music in the late 17th century.
Here you can find a complete list of Johann Pachelbel's compositions.