Blogging Pachelbel — An Interlude

I thought it might be helpful to include here within my Blogging Pachelbel discussion the messages I posted to the AMSList starting on Sept. 20th. What follows is an edited version of the content of those posts.

Recently while wending my way through my usual political blog reading, I came across a post from Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos titled “Mozart and copyright,” the topic of which is a decent consideration of the terrible side effects of modern long-term copyright.

Leaving aside the fact that Mozart and other composers of his time suffered greatly from the lack of any copyright protection at all, one line caught my attention. It is a quotation from a 2002 article by Adam Baer, writing at titled “Wolfgang Amadeus Copycat: Did Mozart plagiarize?“, and considers the case of “Der wohlt├Ątige Derwisch,” one of David Buch’s discoveries in the late 90s in regard to Singspiele related to Schikaneder’s theater (and, hence, at least indirectly, to Mozart). In the course of considering whether or not to call Mozart a “plagiarist” Baer says:

Usually, fear of being called derivative–one of classical music’s most serious insults–is enough to keep composers from out-and-out plagiarism. But it does happen, and the borrowers aren’t always second-tier hacks, either. Beethoven used Pachelbel’s Canon in the rondo of his Op. 28 Piano Sonata somewhat sneakily….

I have searched through the rondo of Opus 28, and can only see a conventional passage of descending steps in arpeggios, starting in m. 16. Based on some other web discussions, it seems quite clear that this is the passage that is intended. See this quotation from comments in a discussion of Mahler’s use of the bass line:

Yeah – Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven all “quote” it. I don’t even believe that Pachelbel invented it.

Example: 4th Movement of Beethoven Op.28 – the arpeggiated chords are exactly the same.

This is so very wrong — the chords are not exactly the same as those of the Pachelbel chaconne bass. It is neither the same bass line, nor the same progression as in the Pachelbel canon, and of course, even if it were the same bass line, calling a use of the chaconne bass on which Pachelbel wrote his canon a “quote” is problematic in at least two ways:

  1. The bass line is fairly inconsequential in regard to what is remarkable about Pachelbel’s piece — it is the CANON that is the point, which is why it’s not called Pachelbel’s Chaconne.
  2. It’s a conventional bass, in any event, one which was used frequently (Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground uses 6 of the 8 notes of the ground, for instance, and is scored for the same instruments) — it was no more creatively “owned” by Pachelbel than “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” was owned by Mozart (a point one of the commenters in the Daily Kos article makes).

This doesn’t even get into the question of whether or not Beethoven knew Pachelbel’s Canon. I strongly doubt that he did, and even if he did, I don’t think he would have seen the passage in the Rondo of Opus 28 as being a quotation of it or a use of Pachelbel’s material.

Finally, to my questions:

  1. Does anyone know the source of this Pachelbel/Beethoven fairy tale? The Baer quote in the Slate article, which in regard to Mozartean subjects is based on real research that was fairly recent at the time it was written, implies to me a “scholarly source” for the claim. Is that an incorrect reading of it?
  2. Has anyone written a historiography of Pachelbel’s Canon? While it’s been part of the musical culture as far back as I can remember (i.e., to the early 70s), I don’t know anything about the actual history of the piece, its dissemination or transmission, except what can be gleaned from discussions of it on the Web since it was revived in modern times.

One website tallies the mentions of Pachelbel in the New York Times over its entire history and finds very few mentions before the 60s and 70s (not entirely unexpected), and points out that the canon itself wasn’t mentioned in the Times until 1971, but was clearly well-known by 1977.

Another site attributes the revival of the canon to Rudolf Baumgartner and the Lucerne Festival Strings in the mid-1960s (and cites complaints about the tempo, which are attributed to a page where the tempo criticism is now absent; it does appear, interestingly enough for a conversation originally motivated by a discussion of “plagiarism,” on a page at

I find it striking that if you search for the Pachelbel Canon on YouTube, there are virtually no performances there in the original instrumentation (though one of the very strongest is by the group Voices of Music), but there are tons of “variations” on the canon (more properly, variations on the chaconne bass), some of them quite hideous and others quite interesting.

Another rewarding discovery while Googling around on this subject was Canon Rock. I was fascinated by the whole thing and avidly watched/listened to a half dozen or so of the versions posted on YouTube.

It occurred to me while listening to those that in popular culture, the piece is a chord progression, not a canon. That is, most of the non-classical arrangements of it completely omit the polyphonic material that makes it a canon, and simply noodle about on the harmonic progression (and many of those ignore the flat 7 secondary dominant that plays such a prominent part at the end of the original, which seems strange to me, given how important the subdominant is in modern popular music). “Canon Rock” actually uses a lot of melodic source material from the original, but treats it as a harmony and melody, with no real canonic treatment. One has to admire these renditions for the players’ phenomenal virtuosity, if for nothing else.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s set of variations, on the other hand, mines the piece for many aspects that are varied, including canonic textures not found in the original, as well as variations that seem to me not to be drawn from the original at all. It’s a tour de force of various styles (from bluegrass to rock and any number of other styles I’d be hard-pressed to put a name to), and incredible virtuosity and exhibits far, far more types of variation than any other “popular” version I’ve encountered. It’s also nicely light-hearted, which is a refreshing change from so many of the arrangements that take the piece exceedingly seriously.

And on a lighter note, most have probably already seen it, but the “Pachelbel Rant” by Rob Paravonian will generate a chuckle from just about everyone. Indeed, at the end of his “rant” he quotes a whole boatload of popular pieces that use the canon chord progression in some form or another — I couldn’t even identify most of them, partly because they went by so fast, but also because I’m just not “with it” enough.

Pavonian’s string of quotations highlights a rather remarkable fact: there’s a huge number of songs that use the progression, or versions of it (either the bass line and chords, or the step-wise version). One website makes an effort to account for them all, but I’m not sure how exhaustive or accurate it is (I’d argue that a lot of the cases where people hear the canon progression are a different but similar progression).