Saturday 22 March 2008

Pachelbel; his canon.

Johann Pachelbel - 1653-1706
Canon in D
"arguably the most widely used, recorded and recognizable instrumental work of all time."

I shan't argue with that, but I am curious as to how it got that way. My CYCLOPEDIA (sic) of MUSIC and MUSICIANS, edited by Oscar Thompson , third edition, revised and enlarged, of 1944, gives ten lines on the composer but doesn't mention the Canon in D. or more properly, Canon and gigue, for 3 violins & continuo in D major, T. 337. A canon is of course a type of contrapuntal composition once popular, in which the theme is imitated by a second voice at an interval, and more voices after that if you like, though as with most things in the world it is a little more complicated than its one-line explanation. And a gigue is a jig. Here's a list of over 500 other works by the composer.

So how did it get to be so famous after so long, about 250 years after the death of the bloke who wrote it? has tracked its rise to favour by counting the mentions of it in the NY Times, an ingenious idea I thought (see right). So something happened in the '60s, and it picked up a head of steam in the '80s.

All music guide notes that Mr Pachelbel was

lost in the mists of musical time until Rudolf Baumgartner and the Lucerne Festival Strings decided to record a work they called Pachelbel's Canon for France's Erato label in the mid-'60s. The recording was not considered worthy of release domestically in the United States except by the Musical Heritage Society. Amazingly enough, the recording became a best seller and, even more amazingly, was heard by Robert Redford, who decided to use it in his film Ordinary People (1980). From there, for a brief time, Pachelbel's Canon became the most popular piece of classical music in the history of humanity.
I have tried and failed to find any anecdotal information about Mr Pachelbel except for a couple of incidents at a slight remove from the man himself
"One interesting story comes from his time in Ohrdruf. For some unknown reason, Johann Christoph Bach (older brother and teacher of JS Bach) forbid J.S. from reading a manuscript of Pachelbel's original works. Every night for six months, Bach would sneak down to his brother's study and copy the manuscript by moonlight for his own use...
He also tutored all of his children. His son William Hieronymus filled Pachelbel's position at Sebalduskirche, shortly after his death. His other two sons, Carl Theodor & Johann Michael immigrated to America around 1730.
While in America Carl Theodor made a bit of history. Following in his father's footsteps he found employment as an organist at the Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island sometime around 1733. In 1736, he traveled to New York City and at 6:00 PM on January 21, 1736 gave a concert in a local tavern. This event is significant as it was the first concert in the colonies of which records exist.
Now, before I post the celebrated Youtube video of a version of the work which I rather like, note the following:
Originally written in 1700 (elsewhere given as early as 1680) as a short, fast piece for three violins and basso continuo, the Baumgartner recording set the pace for outlandish arrangements of the work by slowing it down to about a third its original tempo
And that's the respectful version we're talking about. There are hideous disco and techno beat renditions out there.

What would Mr. Pachelbel think about it? I wonder if you stop caring when you're dead, or if there really is an afterlife and God lets you in on the Cosmic Joke and you just spend the rest of Eternity laughing. Who knows? I suspect Pachelbel would be too horrified by US to even get around to considering what we'd done with this canon out of all the canons he wrote. Nevertheless, this is Taiwanese Guitar virtuoso Jerry C. playing it (in one of the most popular videos on Youtube over the last couple of years). Of course it is no longer technically speaking a 'canon,' and whether the dramatic key shift at 3.53, creating the modern 'bridge' that facilitates its conversion into a rock anthem, originates here or in the work of a slick arranger in some other version, I do not pretend to know and haven't the time to find out. But this kid sure can play.

(Youtube link from Callum Campbell)



Blogger drjon said...

If you have not seen this (which I doubt), you should.

22 March 2008 at 01:32:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Hayley Campbell said...

That Pachelbel rant is fucking brilliant! Thanks Jon.

So's the guitar playing guy. He did his practice when he was told, obviously. But can he play the broccoli?

22 March 2008 at 06:49:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The popularity coincides with the rise of mass electronic media and some of these classical "tunes" find themselves more amenable than others to hijack by film or TV, don't they? So in the Seventies, Bach's Air in G was "the music from the wool advert", Barber's Adagio for Strings is "the theme from Platoon" (although it was used in The Elephant Man before that) and so on.

Brian Eno did an arrangement of Pachelbel's piece on the second side of his Discreet Music album in 1975. "These pieces were performed by The Cockpit Ensemble, conducted and co-arranged by Gavin Bryars. The members of the ensemble were each given brief excerpts from the score, which were repeated several times, along with instructions to gradually alter the tempo and other elements of the composition. The titles of these pieces were derived from inaccurate French-to-English translations of the liner notes of a version of Pachelbel’s Canon performed by the orchestra of Jean Francois Pillard." The titles are "Fullness of Wind", "French Catalogues" and "Brutal Ardour".

22 March 2008 at 08:58:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Hayley Campbell said...

I wonder if it's possible to post something about which John C knows absolutely nada.

22 March 2008 at 10:17:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Kelly Kilmer said...


Is Cal coming with you to Comic Con again this year? He can bring his guitar and play for us?

22 March 2008 at 22:18:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hayley: car maintenance, sporting history, the pleasure of eating onions and how to save money would be a good start. ;)

22 March 2008 at 22:59:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'd been wondering about Pachelbel for years. I never thought to expect it here, but I should've. Thanks, Eddie.

22 March 2008 at 23:14:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Andrei Molotiu said...

Ahem. Listen to the chord changes. I would have posted the original version, but I can't find it on youtube.

There's a good version of the original-original version on a CD called "Three Parts Upon a Ground" with John Holloway, Stanley Ritchie and Andrew Manze on violins.

24 March 2008 at 04:27:00 GMT-5  
Blogger MarkSullivan said...

Great bit of musical history on the popularity of that Canon. I play guitar, but I once had the pleasure of standing in for the cello in a string quartet performance of it - I was able to use a volume pedal to get a bowing effect. Not too hard with an ostinato pattern!

29 March 2008 at 11:57:00 GMT-5  
Blogger St. James said...

Pachelbel's Canon was unknown to the general public before 1980 when it was used as theme music in Robert Redford's film "Ordinary People." It has a sweet-serious melody that is easy to remember, and it became an instant hit. It was performed and recorded widely and still lingers 28 years later in the public's affection.

The music is not covered by copyright, and anyone is free to arrange or perform it without charge and without permission. Pachelbel never received any royalties from his piece and probbably would have been gald to collect something.

16 August 2008 at 13:08:00 GMT-5  

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