Pachelbel's Canon

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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), sometimes referred to as Canon and Gigue in D or simply Canon in D. 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.

First published in 1919, the piece did not achieve popularity until many decades later. The Canon had remained forgotten for centuries, like most other works by Pachelbel and other pre-1700 composers. The piece's chordal progression has been appropriated in numerous commercial pop hits, particularly during the 1990s, such as in Pet Shop Boys cover of "Go West", Coolio's "C U When U Get There" and Green Day's "Basket Case".[1]

Although a true canon at the unison in three parts, it also has elements of a chaconne.


In his lifetime, Pachelbel was renowned primarily for his organ and other keyboard music, whereas today he is also recognized as an important composer of church and chamber music.[2] Little of his chamber music survives, however. 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.[3] 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.[4] Johann Christoph Bach, the oldest brother of Johann Sebastian Bach, was a 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler,[8] and a popular recording of the piece was made in 1968 by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.[9][unreliable source?]


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.

Example 1. The first 9 measures of the Canon in D. The violins play a three-voice canon over the ground bass to provide the harmonic structure. Colors highlight the individual canonic entries.
The bass voice keeps repeating the same two-bar line throughout the piece.
The common musical term for this is ostinato, or ground bass (see the example below).
Example 2. Ground bass of Pachelbel's Canon made of two measures and eight notes being the ground of the eight chords of the canon.
The eight chords suggested by the bass are represented in the table below:
chord scale degree roman numeral
1 D major tonic I
2 A major dominant V
3 B minor submediant vi
4 F minor mediant iii
5 G major subdominant IV
6 D major tonic I
7 G major subdominant IV
8 A major dominant V

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,[2] one scholar finds that Pachelbel's canon is constructed of just 12 variations, mostly four bars in length, and describes them as follows:[10]

  1. (bars 3–6) quarter notes
  2. (bars 7–10) eighth notes
  3. (bars 11–14) sixteenth notes
  4. (bars 15–18) leaping quarter notes, rest
  5. (bars 19–22) 32nd-note pattern on scalar melody
  6. (bars 23–26) staccato, eighth notes and rests
  7. (bars 27–30) sixteenth note extensions of melody with upper neighbor notes
  8. (bars 31–38) repetitive sixteenth note patterns
  9. (bars 39–42) dotted rhythms
  10. (bars 43–46) dotted rhythms and 16th-note patterns on upper neighbor notes
  11. (bars 47–50) syncopated quarter and eighth notes rhythm
  12. (bars 51–56) 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.[10]

Pop versions[edit]

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.[11] Another song based on the piece is The Farm's single "All Together Now", which has a chord sequence lifted directly from it.[12] It became a number four hit in the UK Singles Chart in 1990 and has been used in adverts, for football team songs and been re-released on several occasions, including a version by Atomic Kitten and Goleo VI in 2006.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chamings, Andrew Wallace. 2013.Canon in the 1990s: From Spiritualized to Coolio, Regurgitating Pachelbel's Canon
  2. ^ a b 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Gustav Beckmann, Johann Pachelbel als Kammerkomponist, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 1 (1918–19): 267–74. The Canon is found on p. 271.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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 
  8. ^ Daniel Guss, CD booklet to Pachelbel's Greatest Hit: The Ultimate Canon, BMG Classics (RCA Red Seal)
  9. ^ "Orchestre De Chambre Jean-François Paillard Discography at Discogs". Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  10. ^ a b 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 
  11. ^ "Pop mogul 'inspired by classics'". BBC News. 7 Oct 2002. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  12. ^ Green, Thomas H (27 May 2004). "Altogether now with Pachelbel". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  13. ^ "All Together Now: True meaning of The Farm's anthem". BBC News. 3 December 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 

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