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One-Hit Wondering - Johann Pachelbel

Dude wrote music for one wedding and, like, a THOUSAND funerals.
September 27, 2012, 5:30pm

Here's how this works: Each week, I listen to the entire discography of a single one-hit wonder artist. Then, I let you know if their other songs are worth listening to or not. This week: Johann Pachelbel.

You know where one-hit wonders get a lot of plays? Weddings. And, as far as I'm concerned, no one-hit wonder gets more plays at weddings than Johann Pachelbel, composer of the ubiquitous aisle accompaniment, “Canon in D Major.”


Okay, so I know this isn't your typical one-hit wonder, and it doesn't even fit into its technical definition, but screw technicalities and definitions. If this isn't a sign of a one-hit wonder, I don't know what is:

I tried to listen to Pachelbel's OTHER songs on Spotify, but it was just so hard.

Perhaps you've noticed that most of the one-hit wonders I've written about in the past weeks have been artists with hits from the 80s. My buddy Johann here is not so different, except—well—the Canon was written in the 1680s. So ahead of his time, really. However, this classical hit wasn’t always so well-known—it was only first published in 1919 and its resurgence in popularity didn’t take off until the latter half of the 20th century with much credit to a recording by Jean-François Paillard in the 1970s. Today, the Canon is as popular of a choice for a wedding song as Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" and has proven itself to be a timeless classic. But if Pachelbel is one of the greatest German composers and organists of the Baroque era and has influenced an array of other brilliant classical composers—notably his mentee and successor J.S. Bach—then why is it that I don't know anything other than the Canon?

There wasn't really an easy order to go about this, since there is no proper discography, let alone definite dates for his compositions. It also occurred to me that there are, like, way too many songs, most of them really long, and some of them no longer existent. So, I started with all the volumes I could find of Pachelbel: Organ Works, because apparently, the man played the organ like it was nobody's business. Plus, these volumes contained a good mix of fugues and chorales and toccatas and other genres to get a sense of his body of work as a whole. (I actually don’t know what any of those musical terms mean, but I wanted to throw them around so I could sound smart.)


I'm not here to undermine Pachelbel's brilliance—because he really is a true Baroque master—but after listening to those albums, I think I am legitimately depressed. It's like he was writing music for one wedding and a THOUSAND funerals. Seriously though, I've been feeling really sad this week, and Pachelbel's love for dabbling in the minor keys didn't really help.

To be fair, the organ makes everything sound so much more depressing. Still, I was like, "Dang, Johann, why so serious?" Then, I read somewhere that both his wife and infant child died in a plague—not the plague, obviously, but still deadly—that struck his town in 1683. Well, no wonder he’s so sad! Soon after the death of his family, Pachelbel wrote a series of chorales titled "Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken" ("Musical Thoughts of Death"), which, ironically, were the most cheerful of the bunch. Anyway, turns out his music has always sounded mournful, even before the tragedy, because he was employed by the Church to write solemn Lutheran hymns and whatnot, which mostly made me want to rent a pew and cry on it for weeks. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, by the way—some of the best songs in the world are sad songs.

But, no, you’re right; bleak organ music isn’t really up my alley. It wasn't until I stumbled upon Pachelbel’s chamber music, the genre to which "Canon in D" belongs, that things really started picking up. As part of his chamber works, Pachelbel wrote a six-part suite titled "Musicalische Ergötzung" ("Musical Delight") and, like its name, the listening experience really was a musical delight. Oh, and how glad I was to hear the sound of violins! At this point, I was just ecstatic to listen to anything other than a solo organ piece. Pachelbel's chamber music is a wonderful demonstration of his compositional work, not to mention, a pleasant change from an otherwise funereal week. Unfortunately, most of his chamber works did not survive, but I have no doubt that those, too, were amazing.


Lovely, isn't it?

In the end, though, nothing compares to the genius that is "Canon in D," which was originally paired with a gigue in the same key (again, I do not know what this musical term means). Despite it being a popular choice to soundtrack the (supposedly) happiest day of your life, the Canon is tinged with such a melancholy—and I think it’s that delicate balance that is one of the most beautiful things about this piece. I literally welled up with tears listening to it just now, as if I haven't heard it a million times before. (I don't know, I am just so emotional this week.) It’s so goddamn beautiful, though. Sniff.

… And then I completely ruined it by listening to this album:

Thank you, Spotify, once again.

Why people always ruin good things by not leaving them alone, I do not understand. Oh my God. I’m listening to the “goth rock” version right now—what in the world? Hey, the album is titled The Canon in D Experience; no one said it would be a good one. But for real, what in the world is going on in this album?

As you can tell, the Canon has had a significant impact on pop culture (like, umm, I just found out Green Day’s “Basket Case” has the exact same chord progression) and though there are both good and terribly, terribly bad incorporations of it, here are some of my favorites:

“O Lord, Why Lord?” by Pop Tops—the first adaptation of Canon in D in pop music, 1968.

The latter half of Brian Eno’s ambient solo album,


Discreet Music

(1975), is made up of “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel,” which, after several algorithmic re-arrangements, sounds not much like the original.

Werner Herzog uses the song for his 1974 film

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

. It can also be heard towards the end of the trailer.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space” by Spiritualized is such a sad and beautiful song, much like the Canon it is based off of. Still, it only


made me cry, whereas the original made me weep like a baby.


Previously - Haddaway