Loose Canons vs. Tight Ones

In my entry on “canon/cannon” p. 48) I mention the popularity of Pachelbel's Canon in D, now widely known as “the wedding song” (though it’s not a song—see the entry on the misuse of “song” on p. 271).

This is almost certainly the most beloved piece of classical in contemporary America among people who don’t regularly listen to classical music. For many of us who listen to a wide variety of classical compositions on a regular basis, it’s pretty much worn out its welcome. Yes, it’s pretty, but enough is enough.

I’ve seen people argue that its ground bass pattern is reminiscent of many popular modern tunes, and I think that’s true. But I don’t think that’s what made it a success.

When introducing Baroque music to my students, I would play for them first the 1968 version arranged by Jean-François Paillard. That’s the version that brought the piece to popular attention, especially when it was rearranged for piano and chorus in the 1980 movie Ordinary People. It was only in the past few decades that it got attached to weddings.

Did you ever get annoyed to hear one of your favorite hard-rocking popular tunes souped up for strings and played as mushy background music? That’s how some of us react to Paillard’s arrangement.

After playing his version, I would play Christopher Hogwood’s uptempo, dance-like version to introduce the students to the concept of authentic performance practice. I knew most of them would prefer Paillard, but hearing the two side by side helps clarify some of the characteristics of Baroque music.

1) Polyphony
Baroque musical forms such as canons and fugues consist of different voices performing the same melodic material in a staggered fashion, like a round. (For more detail, see Wikipedia’s article “Canon (music).” The pleasure of hearing the layered imitative interweaving of notes is made more difficult when the piece is played by a big modern orchestra.

2) Clarity
Which brings us to the second point: this piece was originally chamber music, composed for three violins and basso continuo (ground bass). Most performers in the early music field strive for a lean, pure sound that allows the various threads of the music to come through clearly, rather than dissolving them into a shimmering cloud.

3) Tempo
Specialists in the field mostly believe that Baroque music was generally performed with a more rapid tempo than that used in early 20th-century recordings. Some groups play at truly breakneck speeds which seem aimed at impressing the listener with the performer’s dexterity, but almost all original-instrument performances are more rapid than Paillard’s. Hogwood’s represents an extreme contrast, but you can hear a typical performance at a more moderate pace played on Baroque instruments by Voices of Music, with the ground bass being played on organ, viola da gamba, and theorbo (a large bass lute).

4) Steadiness
Baroque music, like modern pop music, derives much of its excitement from a steady beat. It’s almost impossible to vary the tempo of a canon because the voices would get out of synch with each other. But even with other forms today’s performers try to to resist dramatically slowing down or speeding up the music for emphasis the way old-fashioned Romantic players were wont to do.

5) Variation
Many Baroque works consist of variations on a theme, and that is true of the Pachelbel Canon, which one analysis says consists of twelve variations on the melody played on top of the ground bass. The easiest aspect of this effect is to notice that what was one note the first time around is transformed into multiple shorter notes later on, starting with quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes, making the work progressively more lively and complex. Playing the work slowly obscures this acceleration so much that many listeners describe the Canon as consisting of the same melody being played over and over as if no variation were going on.

The popular versions of Pachelbel’s Canon in D have led many people to explore more early music, and that is all to the good. But others, who consider classical music only as a dreamy, relaxing flow of notes, may miss what the music is trying to do: draw the listener into an exciting, engaging, enthralling experience.

If you’re interested in exploring early music, try listening to Suzanne Bona’s program “Sunday Baroque.”

When I came across the “1 Hour Version” on YouTube I thought it might have been illustrated by the rocks at Cannon Beach, Oregon, but this photo doesn't match any of the other shots I've seen of the famous “haystack rocks” there.

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