Friday, December 26, 2008

The Musical Canon, Pachelbel, that is

Several months ago I put a link to a PDF of an easy-to-play transcription I made for string orchestra of the Pachelbel Canon on my thematic catalog blog, and I am rather astounded by the number of new people who go to it (and only it) every day. It is rare that I play a wedding that does not include the Pachelbel Canon as a processional (it is very useful as a processional because it can be tailored to fit any number of processing people). I imagine that many people think that it has been part of the wedding repertoire since it was written--a tradition as durable as wedding rings or wedding cake, but it first hit the public ear in 1968, when Jean Francois Paillard put the Canon on a Musical Heritage Society recording (MHS 1060). The performance was re-released on RCA (65468) and on Erato (98475).

A few years ago (has it been ten already?), I wrote an article about the Canon for the Listener's Guide to Classical Music, a source book about recordings, which (instead of repeating myself) I will quote.
Paillard uses an edition by Kistner and Siegel and plays an arrangement that gives the three violin parts to three violin sections while a harpsichord provides a simple harmonic outline. An added viola section plays a pizzicato filler for most of the piece (near the end the violas finally play their ostinato figure with their bows--it is a very beautiful moment). In this orchestral arrangement the piece is expanded in length, and in order to maintain clarity with the added voices, the tempo is rather slow. He achieves wonderful dynamic and textural contrasts.

Pachelbel was the teacher of Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), who was in turn the teacher of his brother Johann Sebastian Bach, and was one of the most important German composers of his time. His current representation on CD is limited to many recordings of his Canon and Gigue in D and only a few recordings of his other music.

The remarkable canon was written in 1680 for three violins and continuo and has a two-measure bass line or "ground" that repeats 28 times during the 57-measure piece. It is written with one violin part that is played in canon by three violin voices that enter at two-measure intervals (when the bass begins its pattern again). The piece works very well as background music for events that require flexible amounts of time, like wedding processions and television commercials, because it can be resolved and stopped at any time. It also works as "pop" music because of its repetitions and the fact that it is instantly identifiable by its eight-note ground.

After Karajan recorded it in 1970 for DGG, the Canon became even more popular, and the piece soon gained its permanent place on the top of the wedding charts.

I remember the first time I heard it. It was at Tanglewood during an early afternoon of the early summer in the early 1970s. I heard it coming from the music shed through speakers (evidently someone on the shed's technical staff was testing out the audio system). I was transfixed by the piece, but I had no idea what it was. A few years later, in 1976 to be exact, in a fellow Juilliard students' apartment, I heard a recording of the Pachelbel Canon. It was my friend's "discovery," a piece he found on a Musical Heritage Recording, and he told me was that it was his favorite piece of music.

The Musical Heritage LPs, as you can see, were the dowdiest of the dowdy: mysterious European ensembles played baroque pieces that nobody ever heard of on white LP recordings with black lettering.

The dowdy MHS covers might have been a reaction to the psychedelic covers that Nonesuch (another budget label) was using, or a reaction to the otherwise "hip" (not to be confused with HIP) covers that graced other labels, or it simply might have had something to do with money.

There is nothing substandard about the Pachelbel Canon. It is a fine piece of music that I admire for its durability, usefulness, and simplicity. I can't help thinking, however, that in a more just musical world people would the Canon as a kind of gateway drug to the stunning catalog of Pachelbel's other works, many of which, in the ten years since the publication of the Morin Guide, have been recorded.

I'm very proud of the arrangements I have done of this piece. You can find the arrangements for solo viola, solo violin, and solo cello through this link, the one for string quartet here, and the one for string orchestra here.


Anonymous said...

Hello! I love Pachelbel's Canon. It is a lovely piece of music. Here is a video I just created of me playing it on an upright Piano in the key of C. Enjoy!

Mark said...

I was at Oberlin College 1968-1972. I studied science, but my best friend was a harpsichord major in the Conservatory. He had a copy of the Musical Heritage Society recording of Pachelbel's Canon. MHS apparently was sort of like the book-of-the-month club of classical LPs, and Pachelbel's Canon was the free record they sent you for signing up to buy a record a month. It was my understanding that virtually all the students in the Con had a copy of Pachelbel's Canon for just the same reason. So I've always thought that this piece's popularity in modern times was primarily due to it being the freebie that accompanied MHS's marketing campaign.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Paillard's recording of the Canon was originally released on Erato STU 70468 in France. (The oldest copies have no date on the inside of the cover and have print only in French on the inside of the gatefold.) A lot of Erato albums were released on Musical Heritage Society and RCA.