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Pachelbel's Canon is the name commonly given to a canon by the German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel in his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo (German: Kanon und Gigue für 3 Violinen mit Generalbaß) (PWC 37, T. 337, PC 358). It is his most famous composition. It was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue. Both movements are in the key of D major.
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. The piece was particularly prevalent in the pop charts of the 1990s, being sampled and appropriated in numerous commercial hits such as Coolio's "C U When U Get There" and Green Day's "Basket Case". 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'.
Although a true canon at the unison in three parts, it also has elements of a chaconne. It has been frequently arranged and transcribed for many different media.
In his lifetime, Pachelbel was renowned for his chamber works, but most of them were lost. Only Musikalische Ergötzung—a collection of partitas published during Pachelbel's lifetime—is known, apart from a few isolated pieces in manuscripts. The Canon and Gigue in D major is one such piece. A single 19th-century manuscript copy of them survives, Mus.MS 16481/8 in the Berlin State Library. It contains two more chamber suites. Another copy, previously 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. Johann Ambrosius Bach, Pachelbel, and other friends and family provided music for the occasion. 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 the Canon and Gigue in his Organum series. However, that edition contained numerous articulation marks and dynamics not in the original score. Furthermore, Seiffert provided tempi he considered right for the piece, but that were not supported by later research. The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler, and a popular recording of the piece was made in 1968 by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.
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 (see Example 1), but there is also a fourth voice, the basso continuo, which plays an independent part.
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In Germany, Italy, and France of the 17th century, some pieces built on ground bass were called chaconnes or passacaglias; such ground-bass works sometimes incorporate some form of variation in the upper voices. While some writers consider each of the 28 statements of the ground bass a separate variation, one scholar finds that Pachelbel's canon is constructed of just 12 variations, each four bars long, and describes them as follows:
- quarter notes
- eighth notes
- sixteenth notes
- leaping quarter notes, rest
- 32nd-note pattern on scalar melody
- staccato, eighth notes and rests
- sixteenth note extensions of melody with upper neighbor notes
- repetitive sixteenth note patterns
- dotted rhythms
- dotted rhythms and 16th-note patterns on upper neighbor notes
- syncopated quarter and eighth notes rhythm
- eighth-note octave leaps
Pachelbel's Canon thus merges a strict polyphonic form (the canon) and a variation form (the chaconne, which itself is a mixture of ground bass composition and variations). Pachelbel skillfully constructs the variations to make them both pleasing and subtly undetectable.
During the years of Baroque Pop in the second half of the 1960s, two bands incorporated the melody of Pachelbel's Canon in D in their songs, adding vocals and pop/rock arrangements. The first one was The Pop Tops in Spain with their international (mostly European) minor hit "Oh Lord! Why Lord?" (1968), and the second one was the Paris based band Aphrodite's Child (formed by later very popular Greek members like Demis Roussos or Vangelis) with their European hit "Rain & Tears" (recorded in Paris, May 1968).
In 2002, pop music producer Pete Waterman described Canon in D as "almost the godfather of pop music because we've all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years". He also said that Kylie Minogue's 1988 UK Number One hit single "I Should Be So Lucky", which Waterman co-wrote and co-produced, was based on Canon in D.
Use in cinema
In Werner Herzog's 1974 film, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle—Kaspar Hauser, the Canon in D plays during the opening sequence. Robert Redford's Oscar-winning 1980 film Ordinary People used Pachelbel's Canon as thematic and background music.
- Chamings, Andrew Wallace. 2013. Canon in the 1990s: From Spiritualized to Coolio, Regurgitating Pachelbel's Canon 
- Welter, Kathryn J. 1998. Johann Pachelbel: Organist, Teacher, Composer, A Critical Reexamination of His Life, Works, and Historical Significance, p. 363. Diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Schulze, Hans-Joachim. Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721) Organist and Schul Collega in Ohrdruf, Johann Sebastian Bachs erster Lehrer, in Bach Jahrbuch 71 (1985): 70 and footnote 79.
- Gustav Beckmann, Johann Pachelbel als Kammerkomponist, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 1 (1918–19): 267–74. The Canon is found on p. 271.
- Perreault, Jean M. 2004. The Thematic Catalogue of the Musical Works of Johann Pachelbel, p. 32. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md. ISBN 0-8108-4970-4.
- Dohr, Christoph (2006), "Preface", Canon und Gigue für drei Violinen und Basso continuo (Urtext). Partitur und Stimmen (in German), Dohr Verlag, ISMN M-2020-1230-7.
- Daniel Guss, CD booklet to Pachelbel's Greatest Hit: The Ultimate Canon, BMG Classics (RCA Red Seal)
- Ewald V. Nolte and John Butt, "Pachelbel: (1) Johann Pachelbel", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001). ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
- Welter, Kathryn J (1998), Johann Pachelbel: Organist, Teacher, Composer, A Critical Reexamination of His Life, Works, and Historical Significance, Diss., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University, pp. 207–8.
- "Pop mogul 'inspired by classics'". BBC News. 7 Oct 2002. Retrieved 30 May 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pachelbel's Canon.|
- Pachelbel's Canon: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Free typeset arrangements of Canon in D, from Cantorion.
- Midi-files, videos, sheet resources, a discussion board and a collection of modern songs inspired by Pachelbel's Canon, from Johann Pachelbel's Canon.
- Video of Pachelbel's Canon in D-major with sheet music, by TheGreatRepertoire.
- Video of a historical performance of the Canon on original instruments by the ensemble Voices of Music using baroque instruments, bows, and playing techniques.
- Video of Canon in D as played by the Apollo Symphony Orchestra.
- Harmony and voice leading of the ›Pachelbelsequenz‹. (German tutorial) www.musiktheorie-aktuell.de.
- Rock/neo-classical arrangement video of Pachelbel's Canon in D-major by Taiwanese musician and composer JerryC.