Pachelbel's Canon is the name commonly given to a canon by the German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel in his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo (German: Kanon und Gigue für 3 Violinen mit Generalbaß) (PWC 37, T. 337, PC 358), sometimes referred to as Canon and Gigue in D or simply Canon in D. Neither the date nor the circumstances of its composition are known (suggested dates range from 1680 to 1706), and the oldest surviving manuscript copy of the piece dates from the 19th century.
Pachelbel's Canon, like Pachelbel's other works, although popular during his lifetime, soon went out of style, and remained in obscurity for centuries thereafter. A 1968 arrangement and recording of it by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra became unexpectedly popular over the next decade, and in the 1970s the piece began to be recorded by many ensembles; by the early 1980s its presence as background music was deemed inescapable. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, elements of the piece, especially its chord progression, were used in a variety of pop music songs. Since the 1980s, it has also been used frequently in weddings and funeral ceremonies in the Western world.
The canon was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue. Both movements are in the key of D major. Although a true canon at the unison in three parts, it also has elements of a chaconne.
In his lifetime, Johann Pachelbel was renowned for his organ and other keyboard music, whereas today he is also recognized as an important composer of church and chamber music. Little of his chamber music survives, however. Only Musikalische Ergötzung—a collection of partitas published during Pachelbel's lifetime—is known, apart from a few isolated pieces in manuscripts. The Canon and Gigue in D major is one such piece. A single 19th-century manuscript copy of them survives, Mus.MS 16481/8 in the Berlin State Library. It contains two more chamber suites. Another copy, previously in Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, is now lost.
The circumstances of the piece's composition are wholly unknown. Hans-Joachim Schulze, writing in 1985, suggested that the piece may have been composed for Johann Christoph Bach's wedding, on 23 October 1694, which Pachelbel attended. Johann Ambrosius Bach, Pachelbel, and other friends and family provided music for the occasion. Johann Christoph Bach, the oldest brother of Johann Sebastian Bach, was a pupil of Pachelbel. Another scholar, Charles E Brewer, investigated a variety of possible connections between Pachelbel's and Heinrich Biber's published chamber music. His research indicated that the Canon may have been composed as a kind of "answer" to a chaconne with canonic elements which Biber published as part of Partia III of Harmonia artificioso-ariosa. That would indicate that Pachelbel's piece can't be dated earlier than 1696 – the year of publication of Biber's collection. Other versions are occasionally put forward, for example, suggesting the date of canon's composition as early as 1680.
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 early music scholar and editor Max Seiffert, who in 1929 published his arrangement of the Canon and Gigue in his Organum series. However, that edition contained numerous articulation marks and dynamics not in the original score. Furthermore, Seiffert provided tempi he considered right for the piece, but that were not supported by later research. The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler.
In 1968, the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra made a recording of the piece that would change its fortunes significantly. This rendition was done in a more Romantic style, at a significantly slower tempo than it had been played at before, and contained obligato parts, written by Paillard, that are now closely associated with the piece. The Paillard recording was released in France by Erato Records as part of an LP that also included the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Friedrich Fasch and other works by Pachelbel and Fasch, all played by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra. The canon was also included on a widely distributed album by the mail-order label Musical Heritage Society in 1968.
In 1970, a classical radio station in San Francisco played the Paillard recording and became inundated by listener requests. The piece gained growing fame, particularly in California. In 1974, London Records, aware of the interest in the piece, reissued a 1961 album of the Corelli Christmas Concerto performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, which happened to contain the piece, now re-titled to Pachelbel Kanon: the Record That Made it Famous and other Baroque Favorites. The album was the highest-selling classical album of 1976. Its success led to many other record labels issuing their own recordings of the work, many of which also sold well.
In 1977, the RCA Red Seal label reissued the original Erato album in the United States and elsewhere. In the U.S. it was the 6th-highest-selling classical album of 1977. (Two other albums containing Pachelbel's Canon charted for the year: the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra album at #17, and another album featuring the Paillard recording, Go For Baroque!, at #13.) The Paillard recording was then featured prominently in the soundtrack of the 1980 film Ordinary People. The Erato/RCA album kept climbing the Billboard Classical Albums chart, and in January 1982 it reached the #1 position, where it remained until May 1982, when it was knocked out of first place by an album featuring Pachelbel's Canon played by the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood.
In 1982 pianist George Winston included his "Variations on the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel" on his solo piano album December, which has sold over three million copies. That same year, the magazine The New Yorker published a cartoon titled "Prisoner of Pachelbel" in which a prisoner hears over the loudspeaker, "For your listening pleasure, we once again present Pachelbel's Canon."
The 1991 musical parody album WTWP Classical Talkity-Talk Radio by P. D. Q. Bach is set at a fictional radio station whose call letters stand for "Wall-To-Wall Pachelbel".
Pachelbel's Canon combines the techniques of canon and ground bass. Canon is a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence. 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.
The common musical term for this is ostinato, or ground bass (see the example below).
The eight chords suggested by the bass are represented in the table below:
In Germany, Italy, and France of the 17th century, some pieces built on ground bass were called chaconnes or passacaglias; such ground-bass works sometimes incorporate some form of variation in the upper voices. While some writers consider each of the 28 statements of the ground bass a separate variation, one scholar finds that Pachelbel's canon is constructed of just 12 variations, mostly four bars in length, and describes them as follows:
- (bars 03–06) quarter notes
- (bars 07–10) eighth notes
- (bars 11–14) sixteenth notes
- (bars 15–18) leaping quarter notes, rest
- (bars 19–22) 32nd-note pattern on scalar melody
- (bars 23–26) staccato, eighth notes and rests
- (bars 27–30) sixteenth note extensions of melody with upper neighbor notes
- (bars 31–38) repetitive sixteenth note patterns
- (bars 39–42) dotted rhythms
- (bars 43–46) dotted rhythms and 16th-note patterns on upper neighbor notes
- (bars 47–50) syncopated quarter and eighth notes rhythm
- (bars 51–56) eighth-note octave leaps
Pachelbel's Canon thus merges a strict polyphonic form (the canon) and a variation form (the chaconne, which itself is a mixture of ground bass composition and variations). Pachelbel skillfully constructs the variations to make them both pleasing and subtly undetectable.
In 1968 a Spanish group Los Pop-Tops released a single "Oh Lord, Why Lord" which used a string ensemble version of Pachelbel's Canon as the basis for the song, over which a melody was sung. The lyric concerned racial discrimination and the single peaked in the Billboard Top 100 at #78 in September 1968. This was two years before the Paillard recording of the piece became popular, though both were recorded in 1968.
In 2002, pop music producer Pete Waterman described Canon in D as "almost the godfather of pop music because we've all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years". He also said that Kylie Minogue's 1988 UK Number One hit single "I Should Be So Lucky", which Waterman co-wrote and co-produced, was based on Canon in D. The Farm's 1990 single "All Together Now" has its chord sequence lifted directly from Pachelbel's Canon.
The Pet Shop Boys 1993 cover of "Go West" played up that song's resemblance to both Pachelbel's Canon and the Soviet Anthem. Coolio's 1997 "C U When U Get There" is built around a sample of the piece. Other songs that make use of the Pachelbel's Canon chord progression include "Streets of London" by Ralph McTell (1974), "Basket Case" by Green Day (1994), "Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis (1996) (though with a variation at the end) and "Graduation (Friends Forever)" by Vitamin C (2000).
In 2012, the UK based Co-Operative Funeralcare compiled a list of the most popular, classical, contemporary and religious music across 30,000 funerals. Canon in D placed number 2 on the Classical chart.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's 1998 song "Christmas Canon" is set to the tune of Pachelbel's Canon.