How Pachelbels' "Canon in D" became a wedding song

As wedding traditions evolve, it becomes increasingly common to walk down the aisle to sappy, chart-toppers by Ed Sheeran or wistful acoustic covers of classic rock hits. But Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” a composition that shares elements of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” remains a perennial. It was never intended to be.

When and where Pachelbel’s Canon originated, and why exactly he composed it, is largely a mystery to music historians. It dates to the late-17th or early 18th century, and there’s speculation that it was written as a gift for the wedding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older brother. But even then, Pachelbel’s Canon was still definitively not a wedding song. Music works by Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn, on the other hand, were explicitly bridal marches.

What prompted the melody’s meteoric rise was a 1960s recording by the French conductor Jean- Francois Paillard. “This thing became really popular — just as a thing of popular music — from that recording,” said the conductor Kent Tritle, the director of cathedral music and an organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The piece shot to even greater stardom in 1980 as the theme tune and opening song in “Ordinary People “ a film starring Mary Tyler Moore and directed by Robert Redford that won several Academy Awards, including for best picture.

And yet, at that stage, Pachelbel’s Canon was still not a wedding song.

What finally catapulted the song to matrimonial fame was Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s fairy-tale wedding in 1981. The royal couple did not use Pachelbel’s Canon, but they did use a baroque processional — “Prince of Denmark's March “ (Also known as “Trumpet Voluntary”  by Jeremiah Clarke — drawing sudden, far-reaching attention to other baroque composers like Pachelbel.

Source: Alexandra S. Devine : New York Times