How a Canon Works
The Nuts and Bolts
The simplest of set-ups: three violins (or groups of violins), one cello, and 28 repetitions of eight bars of music. Yet from those small beginnings comes one of the best known pieces of classical music ever written: Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
The piece is mathematical. Pachelbel used an ostinato (the same music repeated over and over – listen to the bass line) and a canon (a “round” involving the three violin parts – like London’s Burning and Frere Jacques). Wait a few seconds and you can hear the same music being performed by another violin part.
When and where was it composed? We know very little for certain. We think the piece was written about 1680. Some make the rather unlikely claim it was written for the wedding of Johann Christoph Bach (the brother of the more famous Johann Sebastian Bach), on 23rd October 1694. Pachelbel is known to have written more than 500 pieces, and was a famous organist in his hometown of Nuremburg (modern-day Germany). It’s said that he taught the man who became JS Bach’s teacher.
The Canon waited almost 300 years to become popular: until the 1970s, when the celebrated French conductor Jean-François Paillard made a famous recording. Thousands of musicians have followed in Paillard’s footsteps, and the famous 8-chord sequence has made it into countless pop songs, films and adverts. But the Canon seems to have made an impact on Handel, Haydn and Mozart – all used the famous Pachelbel bass line in some of their compositions.