February 2009

Canon in D (Canon and Gigue in D Major for Three Violins and Basso Continuo)

by Johann Pachelbel

This is probably one of the most well-known pieces of Classical music. It was written by Johann Pachelbel who lived in Germany. He was born in 1653 and died in 1706. He was particularly well-known for his organ compositions. He also gave lessons. In fact, one of his students was Johann Christoph Bach, who was the oldest brother to Johann Sebastian Bach.

This piece is a canon (not a weapon; that would be cannon). A canon is a piece of music that starts out with a single melody or theme. A second voice joins in later, repeating the theme. This is followed by a third voice, and so on. If you remember reading last month's entry, this description probably sounds like a fugue. You're right. A fugue is a type of canon. One difference is that a fugue often changes the key of the second voice (and third voice, etc.), but keeps the melody. Another type of canon is a round. Some rounds you might already know include "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Frère Jacques". A round starts with a melody, and is followed by a second voice repeating the same melody exactly. This canon (Canon in D) is closer to a round.

This piece was originally known as "Canon and Gigue in D Major for Three Violins and Basso Continuo". The Canon starts with the "basso continuo" by itself. "Basso continuo" is an instrument that accompanies other instruments. At this time, it was probably a harpsichord, organ, guitar or lute. This instrument provides the background structure. In this Canon, the continuo part never changes. It's the same throughout the piece. Each of the three violins comes in as a new voice to the Canon. The term "Gigue" (pronounced "jeeg") is a dance. Originally, this piece was the first part of two pieces. The second piece was a dance, and is rarely heard now. The key is "D major". A major key would imply that the piece will sound happy. That's true of this piece, but it would also be considered "peaceful" or "serene". You will often hear Canon in D on Classical CD collections, relaxation collections, and it is still a very popular piece to play at weddings.

My first exposure to this piece was technically a program for the TI-99/4A called "Pocket Canon". This tried to randomly create a canon, but it was essentially themed around Canon in D. This was when I was 12 or 13. Later, we discovered a record at the Watertown Public Library called "Baroque Favorites". It was an album in the CBS Masterworks "Great Performances" series. Raymond Leppard arranged and conducted Canon in D. This was an arrangement for chamber orchestra (a smaller orchestra). Over the years, this has been arranged for all kinds of instruments and instrumental groups.


Raymond Leppard conducting Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel

Listen to this six-and-a-half-minute piece. How does the piece make you feel? What do you think about when you hear it? Listen to the bass part. Does it change? Find a piece of the melody, and see if you can follow it when it repeats.

Jon's Interpretation:

There are really not many pieces of music that relaxes the soul like this one. The chord progression throughout the piece is one of my favorites, and I really enjoy hearing it again and again.

I have no recording of this (right now), but I created a "Hidden Melodies of Canon in D". I noticed that, even keeping the same chord progression, you can play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", "Frère Jacques", "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", and even "Jingle Bells". I'll add a recording if I can put one together (and one of these days, I've got to write out the music).

Extra Credit:

For those who want to follow along, I discovered that the original score to this piece is available online for free:

Score for Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel

A guy named Rob Paravonian does a really funny comedy segment on how Pachelbel's Canon in D can be found everywhere. It's really funny, but there is some mild language to be concerned with. Parental Discretion is advised.

Rob Paravonian Pachelbel Rant at Penn State