YOUR FAVORITE CLASSICAL SELECTION AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ITS NAME
By Amy Cassaniti
The year is, well, we don’t really know the exact year. Sometime within the years of 1680 to 1706, Johann Pachelbel wrote what is today his most well-known composition. Most know the piece as “Pachelbel’s Canon,” but the actual name of the selection is “Canon and Gigue in D for three Violins and Basso Continuo.” The correct name is a bit of tongue twister, but the correct name tells you everything you need to know about this most iconic Baroque composition.
First, Canon. A canon is a genre of music. Specifically, a canon begins with a theme which will be the dominant melody throughout the composition. One or more imitations of the primary melody are played after a given duration. The listener has the sense of hearing the same, yet modified, selection over and over again, as different combinations of instruments first take up and then relinquish the melody.
A gigue is a lively Baroque dance. Basically, gigue indicates tempo. For example, traditional gigues are played at 3/8 tempo – in other words, there are three notes in each measure and the eighth note gets the beat. Using a time signature focused on eighth notes will naturally give a composition a “faster” or more up tempo feel.
Three violins are basically the minimum number of violins needed. But in fact, as “Canon and Gigue in D” has become popular over the years, any and all variation of stringed instruments have been utilized to play the piece. From full symphony orchestras with dozens of violins to smaller chamber orchestras with a handful of violins, to just three violins, the “Canon and Gigue in D” allows for a wide variety of musician combinations.
Basso Continuo is Italian for “continuous bass.” Pachelbel wrote this canon intending that a keyboard instrument, such as the organ, would provide a continuous, simplified bass line as harmony to the more elaborate melody line of the violins. However, modern interpretations often use a lower pitched string instrument – such as a cello or an upright bass – to play the
Those are the elements of the “Canon and Gigue in D.” But why don’t we know the date of composition? Pachelbel wrote over 100 canons. Apparently, “Canon and Gigue in D” really wasn’t much of a standout in Pachelbel’s lifetime. Following his death in 1706, Pachelbel and Baroque music fell out of favor. In fact, very few of Pachelbel’s 530 compositions were performed after his death.
Fast forward to 1968 and the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra. Paillard and his chamber orchestra made a recording of “Canon and Gigue in D” as part of an album of Baroque selections. Classical radio stations frequently featured the Paillard version and 250+ years after its composition, Pachelbel had a number one hit!
But that doesn’t quite explain why so many of us know the “Canon and Gigue in D,” even if we don’t know any other classical musical piece. One word. Weddings. Tradition has it that Pachelbel wrote “Canon and Gigue in D” for the marriage ceremony of Johann Christoph Bach (the older brother of Johann Sebastian Bach). With its breezy, light melody it is a perfect tempo
for walking down the aisle. For many, the “Canon and Gigue in D” is the go-to selection. Happy times and the music that reminds us of them make powerful memories. So, the next time you attend a wedding, and those around you declare “I love ‘Pachelbel’s Canon’” let them know what they are REALLY enjoying is “Canon and Gigue in D for three Violins and Basso Continuo.” Click on the link below to hear what “Canon and Gigue in D for three Violins and Basso Continuo” may have sounded like in Pachelbel’s day.