Even if we don't know its name, we've all heard Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D, better known simply as Pachelbel's Canon — and probably more than once at a wedding. But though Pachelbel composed the piece in the late 17th or early 18th century, it hasn't enjoyed a consistent presence in the world of music: the earliest manuscripts we know date from the 19th century, and its latest period of popularity began just over fifty years ago, with an arrangement and recording by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra.
And so, no matter how many times we've heard Pachelbel's Canon, and no matter how many versions we've heard, we might well ask ourselves: have we really heard Pachelbel's Canon? In the video above, San Francisco early-music ensemble Voices of Music — here Katherine Kyme, Carla Moore, and Cynthia Freivogel on violin, Tanya Tomkins on cello, Hanneke van Proosdij on baroque organ, and David Tayler on the theorbo — perform what many enthusiasts would consider a definitive Pachelbel's Canon. Not only do they play that earliest of its known manuscripts, they play it using instruments from the time of Pachelbel, and with the kind of playing techniques popular back then.
"The string instruments are not only baroque, but they are in baroque setup," notes the video's description. "This means that the strings, fingerboard, bridge and other parts of the violin appear just as they did in Pachelbel's time." The video shows that "no metal hardware such as chinrests, clamps or fine tuners are used on the violins, allowing the violins to vibrate freely." As for the organ, it's "made entirely of wood, based on German baroque instruments, and the pipes are voiced to provide a smooth accompaniment to the strings, instead of a more soloistic sound."
Just as van Proosdij's technique might look slightly unfamiliar to a modern organist, so might Kyme, Moore and Freivogel's to a modern violinist: "All three are playing baroque violins with baroque bows, yet each person has her own distinct sound and bowing style — each bow has a different shape and balance." Their playing differs in the way, the notes add, that musicians' playing appears to differ in paintings from the 17th century, a time when "individuality of sound and technique was highly valued," and none of it was overseen by that most 19th-century of musical figures, the conductor. How many historically-aware brides and grooms — with the means, of course, to hire noted early-music ensembles — will it take to bring those values back into the mainstream?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.