How ‘Canon in D Major’ Became the Wedding Song

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In current times, it is very popular to walk down the aisle to pop culture chart toppers by Ed Sherran, John Legend or Christina Perri.  However, Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” remains a perennial favorite.

Can you believe it was never intended to be a wedding song?

This singular piece of centuries old classical music dates back to the late 17th or early 18th century.  There’s speculation it was composed for the wedding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s older brother, with whom Pachelbel studied.

Before this widely popular piece of music became a wedding sensation, it would fall into obscurity for hundreds of years. The early 20th century was the era of getting early music out and figuring out how to transcribe it and who could play it.  Unlike Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” (often used for the recessional) or Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus”, aka “Here Comes the Bride” (often used for the processional), Pachelbel’s Canon is without text or context.

What prompted the melody’s meteoric rise was a 1960’s recording by the French conductor, Jean-François Paillard. The piece shot to even greater stardom in 1980 as the theme song for the film “Ordinary People”, starring Mary Tyler Moore and directed by Robert Redford.  

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

What finally catapulted the song to matrimonial fame was Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s fairytale wedding in 1981.  They did not choose Pachelbel’s Canon, but they did choose a baroque processional “Prince of Denmark’s March”, drawing attention to other baroque composers like Pachelbel.

There was a sense of pomp, it was a very different kind of sound and everybody really went for it.  The reason it’s called a canon is because of what the three violins do in the upper voices:  they play in a round.  (Just as in “Three Blind Mice” or “Frères Jacques”.  It’s also perfectly paced for walking down the aisle.  What happens to many couples, is the first time they hear it they go crazy with joy, it’s love at first hearing.
It is so fascinating to learn of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” lying in obscurity since the Baroque Period  to the 1980’s.  It is certainly one of my all-time favorites for a wedding march!