Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a pretty obscure figure even after the post-WWII Baroque revival. If he was remembered at all, it was as a friend of the Bach family and a music teacher to several of the Bach children, though as far as I can tell not Johann Sebastian. Then, in 1990, Jean-Francois Paillard released this arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and the rest is history.
You’ve no doubt heard it at weddings, in shopping malls, waiting for a movie to start, etc. And you’ve certainly heard popular music that steals from it shamelessly, as described in Rob Paravonian’s hilarious rant.
And Rob is completely right that the cello part is boring and awful to play. It’s there purely to provide the harmonic foundation for what goes above it, which is a strict canon (that is, a round like Row, Row, Row, Your Boat); the first violin plays a melody, then starts another as its previous melody moves to the second, then the third violin, until they finally all join up at the end. It looks more or less like this:
Violin 1: ABCD...ZZZ Violin 2: ABC...YZZ Violin 3: AB...XYZ Cello: 8888...888
with the poor cello repeating those same damned 8 noted over and over.
Paillard’s lovely instrumentation disguises that to some extent; it’s much clearer in this awesome period instruments version.
All the music from the this series can be found and enjoyed here.