Making the familiar fresh

Pity Pachelbel’s Canon in D, beloved of A Certain Classical Radio Station and many a bride who has selected it for her wedding music (I had this piece at my wedding, played so badly by the village organist it was rendered unrecognisable!) . It’s heard so often, it’s received with groans of  “Oh no, not that again!” whenever it is played.

People accuse this music of being clichéd or boring, but it is neither of these things if played well. It’s musically interesting, apparently simple yet sophisticated: a repeated pattern (“ostinato”) in the bass, initially heard unadorned by solo cello/continuo, forms the foundation for a work which grows in texture and drama, alternating between fast and slow notes, two- and four-bar units, and major and minor chords. The interplay and overlap between the upper voices (three violins) create complex harmonies, including some piquant crunchy disonnances. The “ostinato” or ground bass is a popular device – taken up by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin (Berceuse) and Bill Evans (Peace Piece) and many others. I’ve even heard Pachelbel’s ground bass in a song by a Hip Hop band which my son likes.

Last week I attended a candlelit concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields, given by members of the LMA Orchestra. The enjoyable programme focussed on music by Bach and Vivaldi, including Bach’s wonderful Double Concerto for Two Violins, Air on a G-string, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D. There were only seven players, and, apart from the cellist and harpsichordist, they performed standing up, which immediately lent a different dynamic to the music and its performance. This was noticeable in every piece, but I was particularly interested to hear, and see, how they would approach Pachelbel’s Canon. We were sitting close to the musicians, in the side pews, which gave us a good view of how they interacted, physically and musically. They leaned into the music, gestured towards one another as the theme was passed between them, bringing greater clarity, vibrancy and emotion to the musical lines. It was almost as if they were drawing a diagram of the structure of the music through their movements. It was a refreshing take on this well-known piece and I heard it afresh, appreciating its sophistication. In addition, the entire programme was beautifully played, every line crisply articulated, finessed and refined. And by standing to perform, the musicians lent a greater sense of the energy of ensemble playing to their performance.

I had a similar experience with another very well-known piece which has been subjected to many rather clichéd readings and which gained huge popularity after ice skaters Torvill and Dean used it in their ice dancing sequence at the 1984 Winter Olympics – Ravel’s Bolero, also a work which uses an ostinato device (the repeating rhythmic figure in the snare drum). I learnt the piano 4-hands transcription some years ago and, while this wasn’t the best rendering of the music, in doing so I really appreciated Ravel’s skill in creating and sustaining drama. As in Pachelbel’s Canon, the ostinato figure brings a hypnotic atmosphere to the music, while the melody is passed amongst different instruments (also as in the Pachelbel), continually re-orchestrating the theme. The work has a constant crescendo, rising to an extreme fortissimo climax in C major. The trick is to not to peak too early, so to speak, but to sustain the rising sense of drama over the course of some 15 minutes of music. Done well, it’s mesmeric and engrossingly sensuous.

There’s a good reason why these works, and others which suffer from over-playing on the radio or in concert, are so popular: they are really great pieces, whose popularity does not mean they are “bad music”. And when they were first written these works were not considered ubiquitous or clichéd, but fresh, different and exciting.