Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Whenever I hear Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D *(commonly referred to as Pachelbel’s Canon), I choke up. You might think that’s the equivalent of crying at “Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Nutcracker Suite. No one except perhaps the mother of a dancer cries at a piece that’s heard so often and seems so overplayed.

With its first familiar notes, I’m transported in my mind from wherever I am (standing at kitchen sink, driving down the freeway, sweeping the garage) to a specific place and time—the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Presbyterian church on an evening early in December, 1979. I can smell cold night air and fir needles as tears begin to fill my eyes. A gift is unwrapping itself somewhere deep inside me.

As familiar as the music is now, it was rediscovered in the latter part of the twentieth century, which helps explain why I had never heard Canon in D before that night. The occasion was the holiday concert of the Chamber Orchestra at Wauwatosa East high school. I was one of many mothers who, along with fathers, grandparents and siblings, made up the bulk of the audience that night. My daughter, a junior, was the principle bass player in this honors group of musicians. Each year, the conductor secured several locations beyond the walls of the school auditorium to reinforce the group’s elite status to its members. Back then—especially in the Midwest—no one cared about separation of church and state; we thought nothing about using a church as a venue for a public-school concert. It was a serene and lovely setting for the holiday concert.

The December concert was also the debut for Chamber Orchestra’s new concert garb—white long-sleeved blouses, long, scarlet-colored, gored-skirts for the girls (handmade by mothers or surrogate seamstresses from fabric selected by the orchestra teacher) and black pants and white dress shirts for the boys. The Chamber Orchestra rightfully enjoyed an excellent reputation because of its quality of output. Only the students who were serious about their music made the cut. Many of them were scholars and student leaders, the crème-de-la-crème of the student body.

As the individual players entered the church sanctuary, which would serve as their stage, I felt pride tugging at my heartstrings. My daughter looked confident and beautiful in her red and white uniform. I, too, had been a string player in high school, so my mother-daughter empathic vibes were especially strong. The group settled into individual positions in a well rehearsed tidal-like flow. The church was decorated for Advent with a few bare fir trees unadorned except for lights, and the fragrance of firs was subtle, stirring up nostalgic memories of happy Christmas seasons. The tiny, clear Christmas lights twinkled on the freshly cut evergreen trees—clumped on the sides of the sanctuary—to provide mood lighting. The conductor raised his baton and the opening notes sounded.

A month earlier my daughter had enthusiastically described the beauty of Canon in D to me over the kitchen table. It was hard for me to imagine what the composition would sound like, because I only heard the bass part as she practiced her orchestra music. Pachelbel scored a repetitive bass line of just five notes, which periodically—from our dining room where family music practice took place— rose above the tea kettle’s whistle, reruns of I Love Lucy, and her brothers voices. “It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry,” she confided. “I can’t wait for you to hear it.”

That December night, as I sat in the pew anticipating the performance, I was particularly keen on discovering what it was that had moved her so deeply. Now I was hearing it for myself. The music overflowed into the church, sliding upwards across the stained glass, filling the peaked roof. Its simple, round-like melody seemed to permeate every air molecule. I felt it pulling into my lungs as I inhaled. My body thrummed in harmonic response. Maybe being in church (albeit not the one where I worshipped) helped make it a spiritual experience for me, but it was as if the music had sought and found my soul.

A sense of joy overcame me, changing my mental orientation from the mundane rush of cleaning up the dinner dishes and finding a parking place to overwhelming calmness. My psyche settled into a place of infinite hope and unlimited possibility. The music filled me with a sense of optimism in what lay ahead in life, a sense that nothing could ever harm us.

I relive that experience every time I hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I think about how the music seemed to have uncorked something inside me, making me feel as if hope had liquefied and was flowing through my veins. A feeling of well-being diluted my daily worries, broke loose a dam of anxiety and washed it away. If I could be touched by this simple music as it lit the dark edges of a chilly night, I knew I had nothing to fear. Tears of gratitude had streamed down my cheeks.

That was thirty years ago. Now when I let myself really listen to Pachelbel’s Canon, I cry for all the years between then and now, for the goodness, the wonder, and the angst that comprise living. For the time it takes to listen to the entire work—only several minutes—I cry for all the disappointments, mistakes and grief, as well as all the love, triumph and delight of an ordinary life.

* The music heard on this link is arranged for and performed on a synthesizer. The artist is JC Hall.
© 2010 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2010

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