Repetition, Again

As professional musicians, friends of mine play at weddings and I often like to find out what they’ve been asked to play. They get all sorts, of course, and are always obliging: the first violinist in a colleague’s string quartet has an excellent ear and will play requests on the spot; Harpist Sólveig Thoroddsen was asked – on two separate occasions – to play Sweet Child o’ Mine (Guns ‘n’ Roses), and Iron Maiden’s Blood Brothers; and Jayne Bell, a conductor, walked down the aisle to John Williams’ Imperial March.

There’s one piece, though, that is requested often enough that it still makes me laugh: Pachelbel’s Canon. The one in D, with three violins.[1] Comedian Rob Paravonian complains about it, ukulele duos rearrange it,[2] The Piano Guys fall asleep to it before strumming out a rearrangement for four cellos, Pagagnini do a comedic set of variations on it, a friend of mine played it on the harp yesterday (for a wedding), and the Pianotainment duo do a fifteen-minute set around it, jazzing it up and fusing it with an assortment of tunes ranging from God Save the Queen to Go West. Indeed if you’re really taken with it there is a nine-hour looped version on YouTube with obligato birdsong in the background. Surely, if Glass’s Façades is a musical shorthand for busy modern life then Pachelbel’s Canon is almost inextricable from the wedding processional.

Nevertheless, my colleagues have mixed feelings about the original piece. One, whose instrument – the cello – qualifies her to dislike the piece,[3] actually thinks well of it, played on period instruments and at a lively tempo. Another colleague, an experienced Baroque violinist also thinks it a fine piece, despite having played it plenty of times to have come to resent it. On the other side of the fence sits another equally-qualified double bass player who doesn’t rate it personally or professionally: there’s not enough variety of material to maintain her interest as either a player or a listener.

This finally brings me to my point: I personally find this tension between general popularity and how we regard individual pieces, songs, composers and performers utterly fascinating, particularly when the level of familiarity, fame, or infamy is so great that we have to consciously avoid looking through its prism. Take this, for example: a few years ago I went to see a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto[4] at St. David’s Hall. Like many other pieces that are performed, recorded and broadcast regularly,[5] its apparent popularity is both its strength and its weakness. It has almost reached a level of irreproachability that would rival Kim Jong Il’s reputation within North Korea. It’s critic-proof. Nevertheless, familiarity can breed indifference and up until that point, I’d already heard it often enough to have developed an unhealthy attitude towards it, like sucking an orange dry. It no longer set my synapses on fire. However, during the interval my teacher at the time, Richard McMahon, said in passing, ‘you know, it really is a very good concerto.’ That was all, but it gave me pause for thought – it is stating the obvious, but easy to forget: the popularity of any music at any time does not correlate consistently with how good it really is. It works in many ways, and in this instance, the popularity of Grieg’s Piano Concerto had, in part, skewed my appreciation of the quality of the work.

And so began my ongoing personal evaluation re-evaluation.

To return to the Pachelbel, it really is a good example of both a tightly-constructed canon and an ensemble piece: Violin 1 (the dux) is not the principle instrument, it merely leads the way through the piece. Indeed, it works despite being a canon – the violin parts pass through various four-bar hierarchies, building and receding throughout, and during more melodically-interesting moments Pachelbel sometimes keeps the other violinists out of trouble, playing less interesting, sotto voce passages. What is more, it has a strong sense of overall structure: reflective passages sit between the livelier ones and, most tangibly of all, repetitions of any foreground four-bar passages never sound the same, as their context within the whole is always changing. This is, of course, inherent to the nature of a canon, but with Pachelbel’s in particular it sounds conspicuously deliberate, not incidental. I disagree with my colleague that there is little thematic variety or interest, although if this is true then I would suggest that the interactions between the melodic ideas goes some way to making up for this.

It is worthwhile at any time, of course, but particularly so with famously popular music, that we acknowledge as much as possible the level of disparity between how good a piece is and how much we actually like it. In other words, taste. It’s easier to do with more recent music (that for which we can remember a before-time), but I suspect that most of us (myself included) don’t always remember to question established, still-popular music. This can swing in a variety of roundabouts: I can’t stand Abba, for example, but so much of their music is consistently excellent of course – tightly-constructed and deliberate. And, as many say, their songs are bullet-proof. On the other hand, I’m convinced that Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – third movement aside – is far from an engaging or indeed very good piece, but is really actually more boring and overly long than most people seem to acknowledge.[6] For any Tchaikophiles I’ve offended, I offer you this in return: I like Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me. A lot. A disproportionate amount. And, popular Bieber-bashing aside, I’ll readily admit that it isn’t that great a song that many people will, or should, remember years from now.

Received popularity of any music (however we may measure it) can affect us along a spectrum which, for now, I would like to call the Pachelbel Scale of popularity against genuine personal appreciation (GPA). If we choose to be contrary to received popularity, we may miss the positive attributes. If we accept it, we may be blind to the flaws. A number of Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions, for example, whilst somewhat unfashionable now are, I’m sure, very well-arranged, despite their symphonic, somewhat bombastic, approach that has since been discounted for worthy reasons of authenticity in light of the early music movement.

On the sunshine end of the scale it’s also easy to forget how good certain longer-standing and popular examples are as a consequence of their popularity. My own personal examples that spring to mind include Bohemian Rhapsody and Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, but I’m sure you have your own. Incidentally, as a reality-check I tend to pass such examples through the following imaginary scenario: if it were a completely unknown piece of music, and you discovered it, would you be astonished that it wasn’t well-known? It’s not fool-proof, but it can help set a kind of perspective. Grieg’s Piano Concerto fared well in this, Tchaikovsky’s B-Flat Minor less so.

I’m certainly not calling for us all to turn our attitudes on their heads or, indeed to only love the good stuff and dismiss the rest[7] – where’s the fun in that? – but just to ask ourselves from time to time one of two questions: “Is it all that good?” or, more interestingly, “Is it really all that bad?”

Postscript: Further reading in relation to the link between a music’s perceived popularity and its reception, here or at http://www.princeton.edu/~mjs3/salganik_watts08.pdf


[1] He apparently wrote a number of them.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6frs98DRRkQ

[3] There are 28 repetitions of the opening 2-bar bass line. It’s straightforward enough that even a beginner cellist/bassist/continuo player can have their part memorised in a matter of minutes and still be bored by the end of one rendition.

[4] By Grieg.

[5] As a tangent I’ll take this opportunity to also refer you to Django Bates’ Umpteenth Violin Concerto that ‘pokes fun at radio stations like ‘Classic FM’ that play Mendelssohn’s and Bruch’s Violin concertos, and car adverts, in an almost never-ending cycle.’

[6] As an aside, if we do entertain the possibility that Tchaikovsky’s Op. 23 is not all that good, Nikolay Rubinstein’s famous consultation-turned-confrontation with the composer on the work may not be as extraordinary as it has become in hindsight.

[7] Of course, if and how we can objectively sort the musical wheat from the sonic chaff is another ongoing issue entirely, and one I won’t dare touch at this stage.

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