Perhaps one of the most noted works in the classical repertoire to find favor with the general populace is Johann Pachelbel's Canon. The original date of this piece is uncertain, but various sources place it around 1680, give or take a few years. Its prolific composer belongs to the Baroque period, having lived from 1653 to 1706, and was equally renown as teacher, and organist. His clear and fluent style is most frequently found in his vocal and organ music. But it is in his modest collection of chamber music that we find the work for which he is best remembered. This work usually bears his name, along with its form. It was appreciated in its day, and then forgotten for nearly 300 years.
By pure musical definition, a canon is a single melody, strictly imitated (repeated) at a fixed musical interval throughout the duration of the piece. A specialized version of the canon is the familiar round. Who has not sung the popular tunes Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Frere Jacques? The Latin term for the round in medieval times was rota, meaning "wheel."
Pachelbel's famous offering in this genre really is not that different from these two children's rounds. Many people seem unaware that this beautiful piece is simply an elaborate version of the same principle. The piece begins with a two-bar melody in the bass that repeats throughout, creating a kind of undertow; this is known as an ostinato bass and was commonly used in similar forms known as chaconnes and passacaglias. After the brief “introduction,” the 1st violin enters, which is then repeated--note for note, by the 2nd violin, then the 3rd. The piece builds upon two bar melodic phrases that become successively more complicated. This process continues until the final ending.
In recent years, Pachelbel's canon found new audiences, beginning around 1968 when a popular chamber orchestra recorded it. Shortly after, various other ensembles—including some in the “pop” world heard it and released their own versions; it quickly became a hit throughout the musical world, and found great fame in the soundtrack for the 1980 film Ordinary People.
The next time you hear the canon by Johann Pachelbel, see if you don't hear the simple round while you enjoy the great musical treasure, Pachelbel's Canon!
the Music Master