Skip to main content
No. 1189:
Theodore Pachelbel

Today, the first "recorded" concert in America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Virginia Larkin Redway described the first recorded American concert in a 1936 Musical Quarterly article. Of course there were no tape recorders in 1936. She was talking about the first American concert of which we have any record. This concert took place at 6:00 PM, January 21, 1736, at a tavern in New York City. The cost was four shillings and the performer is a surprise. He was Theodore Pachelbel.

Theodore was the 46-year-old son of Johann Pachelbel. He'd shown up in Boston six years before. We all know the elder Pachelbel for his famous canon -- one war-horse I never quite tire of hearing. I can still listen to it long after I've grown sick to death of the Hallelujah Chorus and Beethoven's Fifth.

Johann Pachelbel wrote a lot of nice music that we don't often get to hear. He was a close friend to the Bach family, godfather to one of Bach's sisters, and music teacher to a brother. So Theodore, the youngest Pachelbel son, had known Bach, who was only five years his senior.

Theodore's elder brother stayed in Germany and went on to a minor career as a musician. The second son also emigrated to America and worked here as a musical-instrument maker. Young Theodore played keyboard instruments and composed music. But only one of his compositions survives. It's a choral Magnificat he wrote in Europe. Although it's not well known, it happens to've been performed here in Houston just the other night.

Skimpy Colonial records say little about Theodore Pachelbel's first few years here. But he was well enough known by 1733 to be called from Boston by wardens at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island. They'd bought an English pipe organ and wanted him to install it. He stayed on two years as the organist.

Next followed two concerts in New York City. Then he turns up at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He shows up now and again in newspaper accounts there, until his death in 1750. That was the same year his old friend, Johann Sebastian Bach, also died.

Theodore married soon after he arrived in Charleston. Two years later a son was born. The papers also tell that he gave money to the local Negro School House. But, when he died, the primary assets in his estate were two slaves, valued at 330 pounds.

That strikes a discordant note, because the German Protestant world of the seventeenth century -- the world that spawned the Bachs and the Pachelbels -- was one place in the Western world where slavery had gained no foothold. Theodore had, it seems, adapted fully to the local culture.

But with him, young Pachelbel had brought the music that would eventually do as much as politics ever could to civilize the harsh new world -- that he had chosen to make his own.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Nolte, E. V., Pachelbel, Johann, and Pachelbel, Wilhelm Hieronymus. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Stanley Sadie, ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980, Vol. 14, pp. 46-55.

Redway, V. L., A New York Concert in 1736. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January 1936, pp. 170-179.

Redway, V. L., Charles Theodore Pachelbell, "Musical Emigrant." Journal of the American Musical Society, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring 1952, pp. 32-36.

Stevenson, R., Pachelbel [Pachelbell], Charles Theodore [Carl Theodor]. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (H. W. Hitchcock and S. Sadie, eds.). New York: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1986, Vol. 3, p. 458.