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How I learned to stop worrying and love Pachelbel's canon

This past January I tackled the strange question of whether Pachelbel's canon is really a canon. As it turned out, the question hinged on what exactly counts as Pachelbel's canon! Is it the notation that was discovered in the nineteenth century? Is it the piece as it exists in the minds of its fans as transmitted aurally no matter how bizarrely distant from the original? These are two very different things.

When I wrote that bit, I knew I had more to say:

  • First of all, I didn't document very well my assertion that Pachelbel's canon had been transformed and appropriated across genres.

  • Second, although I had taken an anecdotal approach, revealing an unfavorable opinion of the canon, I offered no objective criticism of 20th- and 21st-century Pachelbel. Where in the score are the objectionable features?

  • Third, I hadn't defended the surviving baroque score against its misappropriation in popular culture.

Let's explore each of these points and end with a cathartic interpretation and a masterfully performed recording.

The Appropriation of Pachelbel's Canon: It is Real

For the past thirty or forty years this piece has occupied a singular position for those who enjoy repetitive music. More than any other example of baroque, classical or romantic era music it is uniquely predisposed to popular consumption, imbued with a harmonic language entirely shared by that of rock music. Despite its origins the music we hear in a performance of this canon usually represents a profoundly different adaptation of what we see when looking at the oldest surviving score.

The piece comes down to us not through Pachelbel's extant scores from the eighteenth century but from a transcription dated to around 1840 of the two-movement work consisting of the Canon and a Gigue (jig), the latter being a short fugue in the style of a dance with a quick, triple beat division. This is the date given by the Staatsbibliothek Musikabtheilung Berlin. Still, certain elements of the score show it to be notated not through a 19th-century filter but in with a true baroque sensibility. For example, notice the fact that half rests in the 12/8 meter of the gigue do not include dots, that when C-naturals are needed they are notated not with natural signs, but with flats (a practice discontinued by the time of Bach), that the continuo's figures in the gigue show experience, not pedantry, that the timing of voices with respect to one another is somewhat independent.

As can be seen from its opening bars this is a true canon at the unison played by three violins against a basso ostinato. Take my word for it that it continues even to the very last note — or check the full score through IMSLP. Although the canonic voices are written out rather than notated enigmatically, the continuo part (for keyboard and optional bass instrument) is notated independently with its final bar sharing vertical space with the third bar of the violin; no measures are omitted from the continuo part; it just repeats, though the bass remains unrealized in the score in keeping with the baroque tradition, meaning that the right hand is to be improvised. None of the nine bass notes is accompanied by a numeral or other 'figure,' and this simply means that the chords to be played by the keyboardist are to be root-position triads obeying the key signature of two sharps (F-sharp and C-sharp). Since the continuo part is complete after three notated measures.

The title reads: 'Canon a 3 Violini con Basso c[ontinuo] di Joh. Tachelbel' [Pachelbel]

pachelbel's canon first eight measures

In the 1980's the New Age music movement brought a revival of Pachelbel's Canon, divorced from the Gigue, the work's second and final movement, and stripped of all ornaments, even the essential ones. As a result, the Canon was re-contextualized into the rockmusik Weltanschauung, the mindset of rock music, where chords are of two varieties: major and minor triads, changing once or twice per measure.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, a performance practice has emerged out of playing the piece at an extremely slow tempo, so slow that the subdivisions take on the weight of beats themselves. The eight quarter notes become eight measures; each sixteenth note becomes a beat; each pair of thirty-second notes becomes a pair of eighth notes. This is the popular understanding of the piece, stepped through at such a snail's pace that it is no longer recognizable in a baroque milieu, seeming to lack the requisite ornamentation. What remains after this metric transformation is a sort of rock instrumental with the mannerism that the rhythm is perfectly square, paradigmatically 'classical' to someone sufficiently removed from the history of music as to consider Pachelbel a classical composer. Some transcribe the original bass notes as half notes, others augment them into whole notes.

The aim of this visual display is NOT to accuse any of these arrangers of even the slightest musical impropriety. In fact the re-metered notation of the Canon is a perfectly logical, competent and even perceptive notational response to a the popular performance practice of this piece as it is most often aurally conveyed. By displaying the openings of these arrangements, I only hope to convey the fact that the metric reinterpretation is real and to document how widespread it is as the result of the modern mental re-casting of the original piece.

Why focus on the meter?

While some have remarked on the tempo employed by various performers, it is far more significant that the meter is reinterpreted. This is because the reinterpretation of the meter adversely affects the interpretation of the piece's phrase structure; and this leads to my first aesthetic disagreement with the modern interpretation.

Why I found myself impatient with the Canon

As both theorist and composer I am fascinated with the fact that one can be objective with musical materials and the feelings they evoke. It is the confidence in this capacity for clear and objective analysis inherent in music that lent me the confidence to expect that I could state objectively what it was about Pachelbel's Canon that irks. And I'm not easily irked. I love the imaginative tempi explored by Glenn Gould in the Bach repertoire, for example. Is it simply that Pachelbel is less resilient?

The first passage I focused on is the most iconic one, marked by a paradigmatic repetitiveness, a rhythm I always heard this way on the radio at about 60 half notes per minute:

In fact, these notes appearing in the earliest surviving score happen in 32nd notes (semidemiquavers) much too quickly to be heard as separate and tediously similar phrases.

Since the ostinato represents a single phrase, the challenge imparted to all who perform the violin parts to this piece is to convey these many notes with the trajectory of a single phrase.

And so it goes throughout the canon as with this passage. With the piece played in slow motion as is popular, so many little details are magnified, and so are some flaws that are so slight, they should otherwise elude one's grasp. Parallel fifths, etc.

Without doubt the most unfortunate loss in many modern arrangements is the canonic structure itself.

Another aspect that is mistranslated into popular arrangements is a mis-hearing of the challenging unisono writing. These three parts are necessarily of the same range and are braided in a way that is not a part of contemporary aural understanding. Those who know seventeenth and eighteenth century pieces for multiple violins such as double concertos become develop a sense for the interweaving equal parts that are avoided in most classical writing. The admonition not to cross voices is a tenet of the harmony and voice leading curriculum taught to students across the world. The exception of writing for equal instruments is rarely cited.

These braided lines do not survive very well when transcribed for orchestra (many players to one part) or to a homogenous-sounding single instrument such as piano. One unfortunate spot in Pachelbel's canon comes across particularly badly when subjected to an arrangement that is not sensitive to this interveaving of parts:

illustration of braided writing with potential cross relation

Here the first violin plays a figure which is imitated in the second violin. Twice, a C-natural echapée descends to A. When it occurs in the second violin, however, the first violin pops in just above on the note D, which then descends to C-sharp. Since the role of the C-natural is to embellish B, it would be absolutely unidiomatic for the C-natural to ascend to C-sharp, but that is precisely what happens in this (and other) modern renditions:

This is misdirection of the C-natural will often be heard when an organist plays from a transcription

Transcending my impatience

The plodding tempo to the point of feeling sixteenth notes as beats, the reinterpretation of melodic figures as phrases, the fusing of the intricately braided lines, the lack of the three parts in real canonic imitation, these all wore on me when hearing Pachelbel's canon, but it was not until I looked at the score, and realized that a performance could be so much better that I began to look for such a performance. And I found it!

Musica Antiqua Köln with Reinhard Goebel recorded the Canon and Gigue in 1984, with a masterful performance that conquers all these difficulties. Archiv 410 502. The disc also includes Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. This recording for me vindicates the composition and the composer.

Once the popular transformation and appropriation of Pachelbel's canon became clear to me, I could now love the piece for the first time. For in fact, one of the first things I learned as a composer is that an audience's dislike for both modern music and its composers often comes from poor or misunderstood performance, more often than the music itself. The example cited is usually the Kraft recordings of Stravinsky. (This always took me aback, because I generally liked them.) But there is no requirement that music ruined by poor interpretation or performance be modern. This underscores the principle that one should look at the score before passing judgment on a piece. Perhaps with the Pachelbel a good performance could somehow erase the most annoyingly mediocre aspects heard in less insightful performances past. Perhaps if I re-examined the score, I could discover something misunderstood. And that is exactly what happened.


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