Love it or loathe it (and there are many who loathe it, mainly cellists), Pachelbel’s Canon in D is famous. Instantly recognisable, it is the processional piece of choice for countless weddings the world over.
It was not always so.
Nobody knows why Pachelbel wrote this Canon, nor why – although many scholars of ancient music have proposed theories. It is reasonable to guess that it was written sometime in the late 1600s, but there are no records of performances. The original manuscript no longer exists, and the oldest surviving copy (hand-written and dated to the 1800s) lay forgotten for at least a hundred more years.
In the 1960s the French conductor Jean-Francois Paillard recorded the Canon in D in full, which propelled it from obscurity to a well-known classic. But it still wasn’t wedding music. That privilege fell almost exclusively to Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”, both of which were composed for wedding scenes in operas (“Lohengrin” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” respectively). In 1980 Pachelbel’s Canon in D was used as the theme for the film “Ordinary People”. This made the music even more popular, but still not for weddings. However the 1981 royal wedding (which did not include anything by Pachelbel) put the spotlight on baroque composers, and by association, on the Canon in D. Written for 3 violins and a cello, it has an intimate aesthetic that has been said to transcend cultures.
But what is a canon? Musically, a canon is a piece of music in which the performers have a staggered start and loop around to the beginning again – like “London’s Burning”, “Frere Jacques” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Pachelbel starts this piece with a sequence of 8 notes in the cello, which are repeated without deviation or embellishment 28 times over. That’s why so many cellists hate it with a passion! Each of the violins are introduced at 8 note intervals, with their musical lines becoming ever more complex. Now, when we sing a round, we usually let it ‘run out’, that is, agree to sing it a set number of times, then each voice part stops when it get to the ‘end’ of the song. Alternatively, if a conductor is present, rounds can be finished at the end of any phrase, and the chord produced by all the voice parts will sound finished. And that is the beauty of the Canon in D. When no one knows when the bride will arrive, nor how long it will take her to get from the door to the altar, a piece of music is need that will sound finished even if the musicians stop playing before the ‘end’.
And that is how an obscure piece of baroque music has become one of the most popular wedding tunes in western society. But its reach is even more far-reaching. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D very clearly in the music of Lady Gaga, Bab Marley, John Lennon, U2, the Spice Girls, Green Day and Oasis. Just listen to the “Pachelbel Rant” by comedian Rob Paravonian, expanded upon by Axis of Awesome in their “4 Chords” (language alert towards the end) – all of the songs they parody are based on the progression of four chords used in Pachelbel’s canon.
Here is the version Tom and I recorded for the recent Staycation “Songs of Praise”: https://youtu.be/5NnZZtvPofQ