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Pachelbel's Canon, also known as Canon in D major (PWC 37, T. 337, PC 358), is the most famous piece of music by Germanmarker Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. It was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue in the same key. 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, and today 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 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

History of composition and publication

Although Pachelbel was renowned in his lifetime for his chamber works (contemporary sources praise his serenades and sonatas), most of them were lost. Only Musikalische Ergötzung, a collection of partitas published during Pachelbel's lifetime, is known, and a few isolated pieces in manuscripts. Canon and Gigue in D major is one of such pieces. A single manuscript copy of it survives, Mus.MS 16481 in the Berlin State Librarymarker, which contains two more chamber suites; another copy, previously kept in Hochschule der Künste in Berlinmarker, is now lost.

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 1925 published his arrangement of Canon and Gigue in his Organum series. However, that edition contained numerous articulation marks and dynamics not found in the original score; furthermore, Seiffert provided tempi which he considered right for the piece, but which were not supported by research. The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler, and the first famous recording of the piece was made by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.

Over the years, the Canon has been arranged numerous times for a wide variety of ensembles. A non-original viola pizzicato part is also commonly added (in a string orchestra or quartet setting) when a harpsichord or organ player is not used to improvise harmonies over the bass line. The Canon's chord progression proved to be immensely influential; it was used in countless pop and rock songs.

The Canon enjoyed a surge in popularity after it appeared in the movie Ordinary People; it is said to have become the most popular piece of classical music, however briefly. Since then, it has appeared in numerous settings and arrangements, including with lyrics.


Pachelbel's Canon is a complex work which merges several distinct forms of music. The canon is a polyphonic form in which several voices play the same music, only enter one by one, each after a delay. 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.
The bass voice keeps repeating the same two-bar line throughout the piece. In musicology, this is commonly referred to as ostinato, or ground bass (see Example 2). The chord suggested by this bass are:
Example 2.
Ground bass of Pachelbel's Canon.
  1. D major (tonic),
  2. A major (dominant),
  3. B minor (tonic relative or submediant—the relative minor tonic),
  4. F-sharp minor (dominant parallel or mediant—the relative minor dominant),
  5. G major (subdominant),
  6. D major (tonic),
  7. G major (subdominant), and
  8. A major (dominant)
This sequence, "I V vi iii IV I IV V" (see scale degree), and similar sequences appear elsewhere in classical music. Handel used it for the main theme and all variations thereof throughout the second movement of his Organ Concerto No. 11 in G minor, HWV 310. Mozart employed it both for a passage in Die Zauberflöte (1791), at the moment where the three boys first appear and in the last movement of his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 (1786). He may have learned the sequence from Haydn, who had used it in the minuet of his string quartet Opus 50 No. 2, composed in 1785. Neither Handel's, nor Haydn's, nor Mozart's passage is an exact harmonic match to Pachelbel's, the latter two both deviating in the last bar, and may in fact have arisen more prosaically from one of the more obvious harmonizations of a descending major scale. This sequence is known as a plagal sequence.

In Germanymarker, Italymarker, and Francemarker of the 17th century, pieces built on ground bass were called chaconnes or passacaglias; and such works would most frequently incorporate some form of variation in the upper voices. In Pachelbel's piece this happens in violin lines. There are 12 variations in all, each four bars long. They are described by scholar Kathryn J. Welter thus:
  1. quarter notes
  2. eighth notes
  3. sixteenth notes
  4. leaping quarter notes, rest
  5. 32nd-note pattern on scalar melody
  6. staccato, eighth notes and rests
  7. 16th-note extensions of melody with upper neighbor notes
  8. repetitive sixteenth note patterns
  9. dotted rhythms
  10. dotted rhythms and 16th-note patterns on upper neighbor tones
  11. syncopated quarter and eighth notes rhythm
  12. eighth-note octave leaps
And so Pachelbel's Canon merges a strict polyphonic form (the canon), and a variation form (the chaconne, which itself is a mixture of ground bass composition and variations). In this regard it is similar to the 13th century round Sumer Is Icumen In. Pachelbel's skill in constructing such complex polyphony and yet making the complexity practically undetectable by unaided ear has been noted by scholars.

The convention in the Baroque era would have been to play a piece of this type in the moderate to fast tempo. It became fashionable in the 20th and 21st centuries to play the work at a very slow tempo, often as slow as 40 bpm, although faster renditions are occasionally heard.


See also


  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. Dohr, Christoph. 2006. Preface to: Canon und Gigue für drei Violinen und Basso continuo (Urtext). Partitur und Stimmen, Dohr Verlag ISMN M-2020-1230-7. Available online.
  4. Daniel Guss, CD booklet to Pachelbel's Greatest Hit: The Ultimate Canon, BMG Classics (RCA Red Seal)
  5. For information on Paillard's recording, see its page at
  6. Pachelbel; his canon, The Fate of the Artist. 22 March 2008; accessed 2009.11.23.
  7. Johann Pachelbel, Composer, Canon and Gigue in D, for 3 violins and continuo ('Pachelbel's Canon'), T.337, Classical Archives ("membership" required). Accessed 2009.11.23.
  8. See Johann Pachelbel's Canon. 22 February 2009; accessed 2009.11.23.
  11. Welter, Kathryn J. 1998. Johann Pachelbel: Organist, Teacher, Composer, A Critical Reexamination of His Life, Works, and Historical Significance, p. 208–7. Diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  12. London Baroque (on Harmonia Mundi CD, 2006), for example, play the Canon at 66 bpm. (amazon link with samples)

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