The Canon

General Lifespan

Canon. Yeah that's that piece that Pachelbel wrote and has been played at every wedding in the Western world for the last 150 years - right?
Well, kind of wrong. Actually that is a canon, so 'right!'. Never mind that last bit - I always get flustered when people mention 'Canon in D'. See post script for a further explanation.

A canon is a piece of music that uses imitative counterpoint (see fugue). So, if a fugue is counterpoint, and canon is counterpoint - whats the difference?

Well, in a fugue, an entire musical theme is stated (or mostly stated) before the next one starts in. In a canon, the first one just gets going when the next one starts. Rounds (like 'Row, row, row your boat') are special canons called perpetual canons.

Canons started out in Italy/Frace under the name of caccia ('caccia' from the latin for chase). This makes sense to me - one line follows another around...

So, then 'canon' is derived from 'caccia'? WRONG! Canon comes to us from those prolific Greeks. They had kanna (meaning reed), which changed to kanon (meaning rule or rod), which was picked up by latin 'canon' (meaning rule or model), which was passed on to Old French 'canon' (meaning leaned), and finally to English (an accepted rule).*

You may be asking as I am - what does the definition "rule" have to do with the musical 'canon'?

Not much.

There are about a dozen different kinds of canon. One of which is the round. There is another type called a 'riddle canon' where you needed to follow a clue, or rule printed on the canon in order to get it to work (e.g. play this backwards). Follow that rule, and you will get your musical answer. The canon has the most convoluted name history I have yet encountered.**

Anyway - canons were very popular at social gatherings in the 1400's. Most of the canons you buy on CD today are from the Baroque (Bach***) period.

Composers of Canons
Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn and hundreds of composers you've never heard of - like Titelouze.

Canonic counterpoint is quicker than fugal counterpoint.
A round is a type of canon.
Don't play 'Canon in D' at your wedding if you expect me to show up.

* Can you tell I have a dictionary of etymology?

** There is no reason you would need to know this stuff.

*** J.S. Bach wasn't the only Baroque composer - but the alliteration is stunning - no?

Post Script

Why not Canon in D?

'Canon in D' is the name of a specific piece of music by Pachebel - a very dead composer. He was alive from 1653-1706. I don't expect any normal person could name a single composer earlier than him. This doesn't matter very much. He's just very early.****

'Canon in D' is the musical cliche.
It is a fine piece of music, don't get me wrong - that's how it got to be a cliche. I just can't remember a wedding that didn't have 'Canon in D' in it, that's all. All I ask is that people find something else to play. There is a lot of music out there.

Please Note: Rob Paravonian remarks about Pachelbel appearing in the 1790s... he was pretty dead by then.

**** Oh, sure he's not early compared to Perotin or Guillame de Machaut, but compared to Danny Elfman or John Williams - Pachebel is early.

Post Script

More Mail!
I recieved this the other day. The man has a point!

Actually about your rip on wedding music and the "cannon", you'd be proud to know that I've got music from John Bull, Andre Campra, Holst, Beethoven, Elgar, Kremser, and Jessie Irvine (The Lord's My Shepherd), Mendelssohn, and others!. Unfortunetly during the signing of the directory, we need filler music that can be cut short on demand. We will have the "cannon" played. Maybe you should consider this as a reason why it is so popular - because it can fit almost any time span and be cut short on demand.

Roger Seheult