Blogging Pachelbel Note

I’ve received some really helpful information about the history of recordings of the Canon from Robert Fink and will need to absorb and research some of the information he’s provided me. That means going back and changing some of the entries already posted (e.g., I now know that the Paillard I listened to is not the 1968 version but a 1989 recording). I won’t re-order the posts, but it does mean that I’ve placed some of the recordings in the wrong chronological order.

More to come when I have time to get back to this — the most interesting recordings are still to come!

Blogging Pachelbel #10 — New Bach Collegium

Based on a close listening, I’m guessing this recording is misplaced in my chronology. The New Bach Collegium of Leipzig was founded by Max Pommer in 1979, and based on this recording, I’d assume they play modern instruments (it’s at 440), but in a historically-informed style. Certainly this performance is quite lovely, in fact — a breath of fresh air after the hackwork of the previous five performances discussed here.

This group is not afraid of playing notes legato when they have no slurs over them. The bass is also refreshingly grouped metrically, so that the 1st and 3rd beats of the measure are stronger than the 2nd and 4th — imagine that!!!

I strongly suspect that this recording post-dates the Musica Antiqua Koeln and Hogwood recordings that come next in this “chronological” review, simply because the earliest date I’ve come up with for this recording is 1989. But I don’t have an exact date.

Also, I’ve classed this as “orchestral” because it’s clear that in some sections at least, more than one violin is playing on a part. But it also seems that there’s some nice use of solo/tutti throughout, in order to make dynamic contrasts. While I don’t think there’s anything in the original that suggests any need for that, if the decision is made to use multiple players on a part, I think it’s a good idea to vary their number. It certainly broadens the potential contrast in terms of both dynamics and tone color.

In short, I’d conclude that this performance is well worth hearing.

Blogging Pachelbel #9 — Vienna Baroque Ensemble

This appears to me to be a recording in search of a reason for being. That is, the results seem to me to suggest that the performers said to themselves “There are so many recordings of this piece already — how can we make ours stand out?” They appear to have concluded that the appropriate response was to completely forego the use of legato.

The bass is pizzicato. There seem to be no slurred notes. Every beat is banged hard, but the notes are all short.

The recording as it exists in the downloaded MP3 appears to be truncated, as it picks up with m. 9.

There is really no reason for this recording to exist.

Blogging Pachelbel #8 — Gerhardt/National Philharmonic

Another workaday performance — they play the notes and rhythms on the page within the style they’ve been trained to follow.

The era of this recording is not entirely clear — the continuo bass is very heavy, with an unimaginative tinkly harpsichord playing nothing but unidiomatic unrolled chords on the beats of the bass line, and a hint of organ at the beginning. The overall approach to the canon is to just play it and let it come out as it comes out, except for a tendency that’s quite obvious in a lot of recordings at the beginning, to delay the foregrounding of the fifth couplet (m. 9-10 in v. 1) until the second half of the measure. This is likely as much an acoustical phenomenon as anything else (the 1st violins are below the 2nds here), but it has bothered me in all the recordings so far, given that what is presented seems to me to be an exaggeration of what happens naturally acoustically. It’s as though the first violins hold back in the first half of m. 9 in order that when they leap up to the C# they can become VERY, VERY PROMINENT. The wave form seen in my audio editing program confirms this — the amplitude jumps noticeably at this point.

Other than that, this is yet another performance where no one is imaginative enough to figure out that notes without slurs over them can still be played legato.

In other words, more of the same.

Blogging Pachelbel #7 — 101 Strings

I’ve already discussed this performance in the post on the Paillard recording, where I was attempting to come up with a justification for the cuts seen in the Baumbartner and Muenchinger/Stuttgart recordings, and the apparent need in the Paillard to de-emphasize the same passages that got cut in the other two recordings. My surmise was that performance practice of the time led to unpleasant results when confronted with the notation of that passage.

This recording, like the previous one, seems to be your typical sight-reading session for session musicians brought in for the purpose of laying down some tracks that will be cheap to produce and engineer and, thus, profitable to sell.

101 Strings was certainly a fictional orchestra, not a resident musical group but a group of musicians who were hired for particular commercial recording jobs and engineered to have a certain sound. I’m not sure I hold this recording against these players as much as I do the awful Royal Philharmonic arrangement recording. But the same disregard for musicality found there and the grade-school-orchestra level of subtlety found in the London Philharmonic sight-reading sessions are evident here, though with an admirable variety of nonetheless inappropriate agression lacking in the previously-discussed recording.

Blogging Pachelbel #6 — London Philharmonic

This is yet another “professional” performance, and sounds like nothing more than a sight-reading session from unedited parts. All non-slurred notes are aggressively detached, and the 8/16 octaves of the bass line are aggressively out of tune (as though it was no accident). There is no dynamic contrast — they just play the notes. There is no change of affect anywhere, and no subtlety at all — a moderately-talented grade-school orchestra could be more musical than these jokers.

If the only recording of the Pachelbel canon that you’ve ever heard is this one, you’ve simply never heard the Pachelbel Canon.

Blogging Pachelbel #5 — Royal Philharmonic

Well, now we come to the commercial recordings. Everything that comes before seems to me to be a serious effort to convey the content of a piece of Classical (upper-case C) music. This recording is quite clearly a commercial rather than an artistic endeaver.

Notably, this recording lacks both artistic integrity and musical quality.

Surprisingly, this very version, at 2:45, is available on a number of recordings. The surprise comes to me not because of the execrable content, but because of the fact that it’s not even a complete recording — it just fades out without completing starting about 2:30.

Then there’s the actual content. Sigh. It’s an arrangement, and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se — I’m an arranger myself, and consider it a high calling. A good arranger is worth her weight in gold (as so many Hollywood and Broadway composers will attest).

No, this is an arrangement where a reason for its existence I can’t even conceive. Imagine, if you will, a 6-year-old not-very-gifted pianist. Imagine this youngster hears Pachelbel’s Canon once (in any version, original or not). Imagine again that this youngster spends 6 minutes at the piano noodling around in order to try to recapture what was heard.

Then imagine that someone orchestrates the results verbatim and puts it in front of the Royal Philharmonic.

The result would likely be superior to what is presented here in this recording.

The arrangement starts out promisingly — we begin immediately with the first full statement of the first couplet of the canon theme given to an oboe. It’s lovely — who doesn’t like a well-played oboe melody? — and certainly a completely justifiable arrangement.

But things go awry pretty quickly — instead of getting a second oboe at the 3rd measure, playing the canon theme the first oboe had just played, while the 1st oboe continues the canon, we get THE VERY SAME THING, REPEATED.

OK, it was lovely the first time — why shouldn’t we hear it a second?

Then comes the third couplet, and we get a flute, and YES! it’s playing the initial canon theme, while the oboe plays a third lower.

Alas, our joy is quickly extinguished when we realize that the original 4th-oriented bass has been abandoned in favor of a step-wise bass line. While it’s certainly possible to create a lovely texture with such a bass line, it’s completely IMPOSSIBLE to do so if you use as one of the voices above it the SECOND COUPLET OF THE CANON, which is, of course, simply an octave above this new step-wise bass line.

Allow me a moment to shudder.

While we can certainly forgive our 6-year-old pianist a string of parallel octaves (who notices parallel octaves on piano, anyway, eh?), any professional producing an arrangement for a professional orchestra certainly knows better.

That said, we are hopeful, and anticipate that the introduction of new couplets from the original canon or the return to the real bass line will eliminate the egregious problem.

But no! Our 6-year-old orchestrator values consistency over beauty, and, instead of moving on to something different, repeats the egregious parallel octaves once again.

At this point, is there any reason to go on? No. Of course not. The parallel octaves receed into the background as different voicings are used and different snippets are borrowed from the canon, but only on the 8th couplet do we get a return to Pachelbel’s actual bass line, along with a nice introduction of the full string section, playing the third couplet of the canon (m. 7 of the original). Well, that’s settling in nicely after a false start, so maybe things will work out after all!

But no, instead, the previous couplet simply repeats in the strings (instead of going on), and the couplet from m. 19 of the original is introduced in THE TRUMPETS.

I can’t go on, even though there’s only 8 or 10 measures left in the truncated version with the fade-out that someone somewhere along the line seems to have concluded is all anybody needs to hear of “Pachelbel’s Canon” (and I DO emphasize the quotation marks there).

I don’t understand why anyone associated with this recording would not want to kill themselves. I cannot comprehend how any professional arranger could commit such a far-less-than-amateur arrangement to paper. I cannot conceive of the justification for putting it on the music desks of a professional orchestra. I can’t comprehend how the conductor of such an orchestra, even if a ringer brought in for the recording session, could accept a paycheck for conducting a recording of such absolute crap. I can only imagine how spirit-crushing it must have been for the members of the orchestra to have to hack through such obvious bullshit.

In short, I guess I don’t understand the professional music world.

I guess that what I do understand is that you can’t kill crap once it’s committed to tape — the record companies will re-issue it endlessly, complete or not, and unsuspecting lovers of music will end up hearing such dreck and never know how beautiful music really could be if it weren’t for spineless hacks and soul-less record company executives.

One thing about this post worries me greatly, and that’s that my description of it sounds so bad that it will prompt people to spend the $.99 to buy the MP3. PLEASE DON’T. It’s bad, and an epic fail. But rewarding the folks who produced this dreck with purchases of the MP3 seems to me to be counterproductive.

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 Slate.com 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 ClassicalArchives.com).

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).

Blogging Pachelbel #4 — Ettore Stratta

I have read in various places that this is the recording that was used for the 1980 film Ordinary People [Note: since writing this, I've found that Ordinary People used the original Paillard recording, not this one], which many credit with really bringing the piece to the popular audience outside of its previous popularity among fans of Baroque and light classical music. I intend to do some research on that to see if I can pin it down or not. For now, a few comments on this performance:

The text used is exactly the same as in the Muenchinger/Stuttgart recording, i.e., with two extra measures of continuo vamp at the beginning and the 8-measure “bleeding chunk” cut of mm. 27-35. Otherwise, the performance is remarkable for being utterly unremarkable, I’m afraid. Other than an interesting tendency to push ahead of the average tempo of the whole performance (46BPM) before the cut and the tendency to fall below it after the cut, there’s not much else to say. The string sound is clean and modern and the balance between bass and the other voices about right. There is no artificial mucking about with the balances between the parts — for the most part, they are just allowed to speak for themselves (which seems about right to me).

If this is indeed the recording that brought the work to the wider audience [it is not], I don’t think that’s a tragedy, as it’s not bad at all. But it is rather inoffensive, which is a drawback in and of itself, I think. When you consider that the Musica Antiqua Koeln and Hogwood recordings came out within a couple years of the release of Ordinary People, it’s pretty clear that things were on the move stylistically, and while this recording holds up fairly well in comparison to the recordings of the 60s and early 70s, it’s a world away from what was soon to come from the Early Music movement in the 80s and 90s.

Blogging Pachelbel #3 — Paillard

[Editorial note: when I wrote this I was under the impression that the recording I was listening to was the original 1968 version, but I've since found out that I was using the 1989 re-recording, which is shorter by a whole minute. When I get access to the 1968 version, I'll replace this entry with my review of it and add an additional entry about the 1989 recording, in the chronologically appropriate location on the blog.]

There is actually a lot to like about this recording, to be honest. After a rocky start balance-wise (the introduction of the 3rd couplet is almost inaudible) and a momentary abandonment of the canonic texture in the middle (guess where?), the sound of the strings is quite clean, with a relatively cool (perhaps French?) approach to the piece. The tempo is quite steady throughout, tending to sag a bit below the 37BPM average at the beginning, but regaining that later on.

But of course, there has to be mucking about with the music in the middle, just as in the other two recordings considered so far. In this case, no measures are dropped, but the two couplets of the canon at mm. 27-30 are never audible. Instead, at m. 27, a completely unwarranted harpsichord solo begins. It does not replicate the figuration of the canonic part, nor is it canonic. It’s just four measures of repetitive noodling about before the strings creep back in at m. 31. The harpsichord continues playing its noodling as the lower parts re-enter following the first violin, and when the 3rd violin enters with the repeated-note couplet, the harpsichord basically vanishes back into the background.

Why?

Well, there was clearly something about either the passage as originally written, or about the perceived shape of the piece that those who planned all three of these performances saw in common. My guess is that after the increased activity of the 32nd notes starting in m. 19 and the gradual withdrawal of that rhythmically active melody ending with m. 26, that the next few couplets were somehow seen as too much activity before the start of the big crescendo to the end.

But it seems to me to be entirely the case that this idea of two parts with a dynamic arch shape in each is artificially imposed on the piece. It seems to me that the 32nd-note passage should be neither as loud nor as active as these recordings make it, and that if that is the case, the radically softer passage in the middle no longer needs to be shoehorned into the piece.

Worst of all for me here is that the music that Paillard and his cronies come up with here to replace what Pachelbel wrote is BORING — the harpsichord figuration is just repeated over and over, with nothing interesting going on in it at all. Now, it is possible that the actual violin parts are being played very softly by one or two players, but if they are, the dynamics are so soft or the balance of the recording so drastic that the music is just not hearable. But it’s also completely possible to make the 16th-note passages that follow the 32nd-note passages soft and understated, as is beautifully shown in a video performance by Voices of Music (San Francisco). There is nothing artificial about the way Voices of Music players handle this passage that seems to have given so much difficulty to Baumgartner, Muenchinger and Paillard. Perhaps it’s because they were using an orchestra, but in that case, judicious use of solo/tutti might have gotten the job done. Or maybe our present-day players are just a lot better at the style than they were back then.

But jumping ahead to another recording, I have found a performance that plays the passages that these recordings excise — 101 Strings plays the music as written, with no changes except for adding a harmonization to the initial continuo statement and, perhaps a viola part (it’s not particularly audible if it’s there). But the treatment of the passage from m. 27 to m. 34 perhaps suggests why these earlier performers cut it or drastically altered its content. The 101 Strings whacks every 16th note in this passage as if it were pesante. Compare that to the treatment in the Voices of Music video, where each 16th note is bowed, but there is a variety of articulation from slightly detached to light portato to legato. It seems to me that modern string players have historically depended on taking multiple notes in a phrase under a single bow as their only method of playing legato. Whenever they see unslurred notes, they see one bow per note and they seem to me to interpret this as NON-LEGATO. Now, that may be an appropriate articulation in some passages, but in others, legato is more musical, i.e., groups of notes that are connected (though not under the same bow). To me, it’s quite obvious that there are breaks at the leaps and the notes within each range should be smoothly connected (even though each is taken under its own bow). But in the 101 Strings recording, these notes are aggressively detached and heavily weighted.

It’s ugly. It’s unpleasant. And if it’s the only way musicians of a certain era could conceive of realizing music notated in a particular way, then I can see why they thought something needed to be fixed. I’d much rather hear the Baumgartner or Muenchinger or Paillard versions than the 101 Strings travesty (and that’s not the only recording that exhibits this defect).

After all that, there are two other aspects about this recording that are quite different from the two previously discussed. The Baumgartner pretty straightforwardly apportioned the three string lines between three violins, with a fairly understated viola part that is never obvious (I’m not even entirely certain there is one). The Muenchinger/Stuttgart recording adds some octave doublings here and there, but doesn’t muck around much with the disposition of the original parts.

This recording quite famously adds the pizzicato viola line at the beginning. It’s sappy but effective — not at all inappropriate for an orchestral transcription, in my opinion. In a performance for the intended forces, a chamber group, you might very well have a continuo group with a plucked instrument like a theorbo that might fill in some figuration in just such a manner (though I’d expect our present-day theorbists to be substantially more imaginative in their figuration and rhythmic subtleties).

The other unique aspect of this recording in comparison to those that I discussed previously is that it extensively re-orchestrates the ending, adding octave doublings both above and below. Specifically, in the couplet introduced by the first violin in m. 49, the violins play with a double octave above the written notes. This makes for a spectacular splash of sound when they go up to the high D, and it only intensifies as the other parts get in on the act. Doublings an octave lower (presumably in the violas) are also heard in the octave leap couplet comprising the last 4 measures of the canon.

As orchestration goes, these additions are fairly effective, but I particularly see the added 8va passage as guilding a lily that was already quite stunning. But not even 101 Strings does this, and splashy string sound was supposed to be their trademark!