Pachelbel’s Hexachord

The name of Johann Pachelbel is forever associated with one piece: his indefatigable Canon in D. A mainstay of both the wedding and call centre circuits, its relentlessly sunny disposition as it cycles through its famous ground bass becomes either charming or grating, depending on who you ask, and how often they’ve had to listen to it.

Despite the Canon’s overwhelming presence in Pachelbel’s reputation, I’ve recently been exploring a much more intriguing work: his 1699 keyboard music publication Hexachordum Apollinis. The title refers to the strings of Apollo’s lyre, and the book features variations on original ‘arias’ in keys which run in a hexachord. These are pleasant and elegant pieces, and all but one are in minor modes, creating more pensive shades than the shiny surfaces of his most famous work.

There is, however, an irregularity in Pachelbel’s scheme. The keys of the first five pieces are D minor, E minor, F major, G minor, A minor. To complete the hexachord the final aria should be in B flat, but here he takes a swerve: he uses the B flat key signature, but the music is written out in F minor. It’s also the only piece with a subtitle – Sebaldina – presumably a reference to St. Sebaldus church in Nuremburg, where Pachelbel was employed.

The reasons for such departures are unclear. And the strangeness does not end there, either. The Hexachordum includes a ‘Kabbala’ page, illustrating a numerological scheme that links Pachelbel’s name to the year of publication 1699, by adding together numbers associated with the following letters:


See the full ‘Kabbala’ page here.

Even in Pachelbel’s day, the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbala had long been of esoteric interest among certain Western Christian intellectuals. Whatever the reason for its inclusion here, it hints at Pachelbel being a far more interesting figure than his reputation as a Baroque one-hit wonder would suggest.

There are plenty of recordings of the Hexachordum to chose from, whether on stringed keyboard instruments or the organ. In the video below, Wim Winters performs the fourth aria on a clavichord.

Or, if you want something a bit different, you can listen to a synthesised version of the same aria by Muscle Pony.

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