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Johann Pachelbel – Canon in D Major

April 9th, 2014

Pachelbel’s Canon is the most famous piece of music by German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. It was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue in the same key. Like most other works by Pachelbel and other pre-1700 composers, the Canon remained forgotten for centuries and was rediscovered only in the 20th century. Several decades after it was first published in 1919, the piece became extremely popular, and today it is frequently played at weddings and included on classical music compilations, along with other famous Baroque pieces such as Air on the G String by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Although Pachelbel was renowned in his lifetime for his chamber works (contemporary sources praise his serenades and sonatas), most of them were lost. Only Musikalische Ergötzung, a collection of partitas published during Pachelbel’s lifetime, is known, and a few isolated pieces in manuscripts. Canon and Gigue in D major is one of such pieces. A single manuscript copy of it survives, Mus.MS 16481 in the Berlin State Library, which contains two more chamber suites; another copy, previously kept in Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, is now lost. The circumstances of the piece’s composition are wholly unknown. One writer hypothesized that the Canon may have been composed for Johann Christoph Bach’s wedding, on 23 October 1694, which Pachelbel attended. The music for the occasion was provided by Johann Ambrosius Bach, Pachelbel, and other friends and family members. Johann Christoph Bach, the oldest brother of Johann Sebastian Bach, was a former pupil of Pachelbel.

The Canon (without the accompanying gigue) was first published in 1919 by scholar Gustav Beckmann, who included the score in his article on Pachelbel’s chamber music. His research was inspired and supported by renowned early music scholar and editor Max Seiffert, who in 1929 published his arrangement of Canon and Gigue in his Organum series. However, that edition contained numerous articulation marks and dynamics not found in the original score; furthermore, Seiffert provided tempi which he considered right for the piece, but which were not supported by later research.

The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler, and the first famous recording of the piece was made by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.

Over the years, the Canon has been arranged numerous times for a wide variety of ensembles. A non-original viola pizzicato part is also commonly added (in a string orchestra or quartet setting) when a harpsichord or organ player is not used to improvise harmonies over the bass line. The Canon’s chord progression is used in many pop and rock songs, but it is debatable whether it was deliberately used, because I -V-vi-iii-IV-I-ii-V is a very common progression.

For example, the piano break composed by George Martin for the Lennon–McCartney song “In My Life”, from The Beatles album Rubber Soul (1965)), has the same harmonic rhythm. The gigue that originally accompanied the canon never received the same amount of popularity, even though it is a lively and energetic dance.

Pachelbel’s Canon combines the techniques of canon and ground bass. Canon is a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence. In Pachelbel’s piece, there are three voices engaged in canon, but there is also a fourth voice, the basso continuo, which plays an independent part.

The bass voice keeps repeating the same two-bar line throughout the piece. The common musical term for this is ostinato, or ground bass.

Source: Wikipedia

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