Of John and John-Frank

JOHN wrote it and weíve all heard it. Well, at least most of us have heard half of it. Iíve had the pleasure of standing next to an organist while, at my request, he played the piece on a really excellent old pipe organ. As a result of my love for the piece, I used it as the processional in my wedding way before an "Ordinary" movie (that I've never seen) turned that into a popular practice. I learned the piece on classical guitar and have since played it for weddings. Though it was written for three violins and a bass and is best known being played by a Baroque string orchestra, violinists hate it for its repetition. For that matter, many non-musicians balk at the repetitive nature of this piece. It has been beaten into the ground by weddings but the irony is that it was very possibly written for Johann Sebastian Bachís oldest brotherís wedding on Oct. 23, 1694. You see, the composer is listed as having contributed music for the wedding because the groom, Johann Christoph Bach, was a former student of his.

The piece I refer to is the Canon and Gigue in D, ca. 1680-1694, written by Johann Christoph Pachelbel. Its form is easy enough on the surface: The piece is built around six chords, either sounded or implied, in a sequence of eight appearances that have gone on to form the basis of modern popular music and all the emotion that may be wrung from it. Some call it the perfect encapsulation of the tonality of modern popular music. But underneath that simple surface, the more complex and total form is a merger of the strictly polyphonic canon form with the variation-based Chaconne form. Over the basso continuo (a repeated bass line) that forms the canon run twelve variations of the basic theme that explore permutations of the harmonic and rhythmic structure implied by that bass line. They are:

1. quarter notes
2. eighth notes
3. sixteenth notes
4. leaping quarter notes, rest
5. 32nd-note pattern on scalar melody
6. staccato, eighth notes and rests
7. sixteenth note extensions of melody with upper neighbor notes
8. repetitive sixteenth note patterns
9. dotted rhythms
10. dotted rhythms and 16th-note patterns on upper neighbor notes
11. syncopated quarter and eighth notes rhythm
12. eighth-note octave leaps
From Wikipedia

The piece was lost to history for over 200 years until around 1909. It was first republished in 1919. Interestingly, the earliest extant manuscripts donít contain tempo information so we donít know itís intended performance speed. It was first recorded by Arthur Fiedler in 1940. It began to gain popularity after it was recorded with a brisk, concise arrangement by Karl MŁnchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1960 that many consider the gold standard interpretation of the piece.

And then in 1968, JOHN-FRANK conducted and recorded it for RCA Red Seal Records. Jean-FranÁois Paillard, that is. Traditionalists puked. Formalists blanched. Music historians balked.

He did EVERYTHING wrong.


Do you remember Nov. 18, 1985, in football history? If you were ďthere,Ē you do. I was watching the event live on TV. That was the date that New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor blitzed through the Washington Redskinís offensive front line and sacked quarterback Joe Theisman, horribly breaking his leg in the process. You could actually hear the break on TV, and that was bad enough, but the real-time footage only showed the events surrounding the injury. It wasnít until they replayed the event from a reverse angle in slow motion that you could get the real impact of the situation: the initial hit, the fall, Lawrence landing on Joeís leg before it touched down, the break, and then a leg with too many knee joints. OWWW. Then we saw the heart-rending anguish in tough Lawrence Taylorís face as he realized what he had done and screamed, gestured, and begged for medics to come from the sidelines and take care of Joe. The event is said to have changed football forever. But the depth of the situation really didnít come into focus until the coverage went into slow motion, and if you have any feeling at all, that footage brings tears to your eyes.

That is the gift of Jean-FranÁois Paillard to the music community: Paillard decided to slow down the piece by half from the popular interpretations. He overlaid a double-time pizzicato arpeggiation of the implied chordal structure of the piece, played on the cellos, onto the bass canon to keep the structure from bogging down. He strung out the notes from mezzo-staccato into legato, smoothing out and sustaining the melodies. Because the notes ended up twice as long, he was practically obligated to add a more modern romantic left-hand vibrato, which isnít historically accurate for the piece at all. He inserted a harpsichord solo between variations five and six as an anti-climax to the first rapid passage to bring down the tension and allow a second build to the finale. And then he used Romantic-era dynamics on the various parts of the polyphonic counterpoint to bring out relationships that hadnít been obvious before.

The result? In essence, Paillard put Pachelbelís Canon in D into slow-mo. As a result, he wrung every possible bit of emotion from a piece that can, and often does, function only on a basic, mathematical level. In the end, that turned out to be quite a bit of emotion, indeed. The bitter-sweet relationship of the passing tones and polyphonic counterpoint just blooms to the point where a serious listener canít help but have his breath taken away. Yes, it is historically and literally all wrong. But given a chance, Paillardís treatment of this lovely miniature is capable of drawing from the listener as much intense longing, pathos, desire, and romantic nostalgia, as any piece of music Iíve ever heard. And, in my humble opinion, Johann would be proud of what has resulted from his lovely little miniature.

You can listen to Jean-FranÁois Paillard's interpretation of the Canon below.