Johann Pachelbel wrote his “Canon and Gigue in D major” somewhere between 1680 and 1706. No one knows because there is no original manuscript and no account of any performance in his lifetime. The first publication we know of was in the early 20th century. Even then it wasn’t performed regularly until 1968 after a recording went viral before going viral was even a thing. The Gigue is never really performed, and the piece is known as Pachelbel’s Canon.
Who was Johann Pachelbel?
A contemporary of Heinrich Franz Ignatz Biber, Pachelbel was an organist, composer, and teacher. He had many church posts in Europe, composing and teaching along the way. While in Eisenach, he met Johann Ambrosius Bach (J.S. Bach’s father), and became close with him. He ended up tutoring many of his children.
In fact, it has been suggested that Pachelbel wrote this Canon for the wedding of Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph Bach. J.C. Bach was Pachelbel’s most famous student, and probably asked his teacher to provide music for the occasion. It was likely at this wedding that Pachelbel met a very young Johann Sebastian Bach – then only 8 years old!
Why is the Pachelbel Canon important?
Pachelbel’s works were well liked during his lifetime, but I am sure he had no idea the level of popularity his Canon in D would achieve three centuries later! In 1968 Jean-Francois Paillard wrote an arrangement and issued a recording that became fairly popular during the next decade, but when Robert Redford used that recording for his directorial debut, “Ordinary People” in 1980 it’s popularity truly soared.
By the mid 80’s, Pachelbel’s Canon was inescapable, entering rock and pop tunes, and becoming the most requested piece for wedding processionals to this day. It became so popular for weddings, it eclipsed the very traditional Wagner tune from his opera Lohengrin, the “Bridal Chorus”, otherwise known as “Here comes the Bride”.
3 Things to Listen for in Pachelbel’s Canon
- Pachelbel actually uses two compositional techniques here: both the Canon and the Ground Bass. A Ground Bass is a bass line that doesn’t change. In fact, the whole work is based on only 8 notes played in the bass, so that is the first thing to listen for.
- The second thing to listen for is the Canon, in this case at the unison. This means that each part will be exactly the same, just entering the piece two measures apart. Listen to each entrance as it comes in, and you will hear that the whole work is really just one part being played in sequence over and over.
- The third thing is to admire how this piece sounds incredibly complex despite its simplicity. It is the genius of Pachelbel that allows something so simple to sound so interesting.
Tips on performing
This piece is very easy to perform technically, so the challenge comes in bringing out its complexity. If you just played the notes and rhythms, it would become monotonous particularly if you are playing the bass line.
When you are playing the melody, make sure you bring out the lines and curves of each phrase. If you are playing the bass line, use the lead line to shape your own, and be sure to keep a steady beat that doesn’t slow down, and therefore allows the piece to move forward.
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