Canon in D major
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: About 5 Minutes
Time of Creation: 1694?
World Premiere: Possibly on 23 October 1694 (Wedding of Johann Christoph Bach)
Table of Contents
Pachelbel's Canon in 5 Sentences
The Nuremberg baroque composer Johann Pachelbel possibly composed his Canon in D major for the wedding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older brother, the organist Johann Christoph Bach. In any case, this canon is Pachelbel’s most famous piece today. In the original, a gigue follows the canon, but it is much less well known. Pachelbel wrote the piece for three violins and basso continuo (a bass line enriched with harmonies). The basso continuo part is what made the piece famous (see “Highlights” below).
4 Highlights from Pachelbel's Canon
Highlight 1: the first two measures (the most famous bass line ever?!)
Pachelbel’s canon became most famous for the bass line (+harmony) introduced in the first two measures: larger downward leaps alternate with stepwise rises, at the end there is a leap upward and another stepwise rise. You can improvise over this bass so wonderfully, the piece just had to become famous! Together with the harmonies, the whole phenomenon is even called the “Pachelbel Scheme:”
Highlight 2: the canon begins
Then the three violins enter, and, as befits a canon, staggered in time, each with the same melody:
Highlight 3: variations...
Then the theme that the violins introduced is varied. There are 28 variations in all, for example this one, which adds a bit of movement to the theme:
Highlight 4: ...and even more variations!
Or this one, which is one of the most famous variations:
3 Questions and Answers about Pachelbel's Canon
Question 1: What is special about the Pachelbel Canon?
In the Pachelbel Canon, a two-bar bass line is played continuously, while the upper voices (in the violins) become increasingly faster and more complex. It is also the only canon that Pachelbel composed.
Question 2: Is Pachelbel's canon used in other contexts?
Oh, yes. I find it particularly neat that the piece is still very popularly played at weddings today, having possibly been originally intended as a wedding piece 😊 But Pachelbel’s canon has also been used in pop music, in movies and series, and even in national anthems. The number of adaptations is incalculable.
Question 3: Who was Johann Pachelbel?
Johann Pachelbel was a German baroque composer. He was born in Nuremberg in 1653, but worked as an organist in many different cities (Vienna, Eisenach, Erfurt, Stuttgart, Gotha). He died in 1706 also in Nuremberg, where he had returned in 1695.
2 Recommended Recordings of Pachelbel's canon
Recording 1: Voices of Music (video production, 2008)
Similar to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, our modern ears are quite “jaded” to Pachelbel’s canon – we have simply become accustomed to this piece droning on in the background everywhere. So here, too, I recommend listening to a recording with period instruments and playing techniques. This refreshes the ears and allows a different perspective on Pachelbel’s canon, which definitely deserves to be listened to with full attention. The early music ensemble Voices of Music has made a great recording.
Recording 2: Canon Orchestre de Chambre (Studio, 2009)
Another recommendation is the studio recording by the Kanon Orchestre de Chambre: