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). It is his most famous composition. It was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue. Both movements are in the key of D major.
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. The piece was particularly prevalent in the pop charts of the 1990s, being sampled and appropriated in numerous commercial hits such asCoolio‘s “C U When U Get There” and Green Day‘s “Basket Case“. 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‘.
Although a true canon at the unison in three parts, it also has elements of a chaconne. It has been frequently arranged and transcribed for many different media.
In his lifetime, Pachelbel was renowned for his chamber works, but most of them were lost. Only Musikalische Ergötzung—a collection of partitaspublished 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. One writer hypothesized that the Canon may have been composed forJohann 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 former pupil of Pachelbel.
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 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 tempihe considered right for the piece, but that were not supported by later research. The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler, and a popular recording of the piece was made in 1968 by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.
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.