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?
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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.
Thank you so much for posting this! Not only did I get to wake up to something beautiful, I learned they are based in San Francisco and just bought a ticket for one of their performances.
I love it in all its various ways
I love this piece and its presentation here. I just had a question about the tempo. The Voices of Music version of the Canon in D here sounds very bright in tempo, more so than the standard fare you here or play at weddings. My question is, how was the tempo marked on that earliest known manuscript? If not marked, what is the gauge in general that early music musicians use to judge the tempo of a piece? Thanks again for the beautiful music!
Hi Bob, there is no tempo marking in the original manuscript. If a tempo mark is not present, the implication is that it is “tempo ordinario.” For this video, the tempo is derived from the section of music where the repeated notes are played under one bow. This special baroque effect does not really work at a slower tempo. Also, the tempo is similar to a basic pulse, which is a typical baroque tempo.
You can see what is called “affetuoso” baroque bowing at 2:12 in the video starting with the violin on the left (Kati) and then going left to right.
Having said that, one of the fun things about baroque music is that you can play the same piece at different tempos and with different articulations and ornaments.
Great music. Too bad that we did not see the whole group until over three minutes had passed. It might have been due to the vertical item in the center.
Too fast to get into that nice meditative zone. I value accuracy, but not at the expense of beauty.
The tempo was beautiful to the performers. One of the beauties of baroque music is different interpretations.
The camera angle was, rightly or wrongly, a deliberate choice :)
Sincere gratitude to friend Cynthia Porcher for sharing this amazing resource in general and production in particular. Gratifying, too, to realize “old” just doesn’t always apply. We look forward to more gifts from open culture.com.
You post so much amazing information and I never comment, but this share was THE BEST – thank you for the care, attention and consistency in giving us access to a beautiful world.
The camera angle reflects the structural analysis of the counterpoint, where a sort of solo for the third violin is revealed at the end of an extended, angular phrase. We also released a version that shows the whole group, but it was not nearly as popular.