Talking with the man who rediscovered PDQ Bach, Peter Schickele

Mild Mannered Peter Schickele.

With the arrival of his 75th birthday year, my old pal, the dogged professor Peter Schickele decided to take a year off from performing the deservedly under appreciated works of the last, and least, of the Bach progeny, P.D.Q.

As Laura Leon writes, “he has changed the world’s musical landscape in so many fantastic ways for thousands upon thousands of musicians and music lovers.

“He has a remarkable body of work-some serious, some humorous, some with a broad sense of music history, and all with a sensitivity to design and message. A fair number of works hark back to–and are influenced by–his deep love of the folk tune. He has a special gift for taking simple melodies and refreshing them anew for our ears, while always evoking another time.”

Peter Schickele

Let me tell you a little about an upcoming concert in New York City on March 29, 2011 at Steinway Hall that honors both PDQ Bach and Peter Schickele, and following that, for the truly masochistic, I have dredged up a transcript of my on-the-record talk with him back in 2009.

The concert will include several solo piano works, including his Epitaphs for Piano, a tribute to several composers, spanning from Orlando di Lasso to Stravinsky, and PRESENTS II for Piano, which Laura Leon had the privilege of premiering in New York in April 2008. Among the wonderful chamber works to be performed, will be his Trio Serenade for Two Flutes and Piano, Seven Miniatures for Violin and Piano, and What Did You Do Today at Jeffey’s House? for Horn and Piano.

And, of course, a concert in honor of Peter Schickele would not be quite complete without a tribute to P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742)?–with gratitude to Professor Peter Schickele–featuring his Fanfare for the Common Cold for brass quintet and “Goldbrick” Variations for Piano.

Ms. Leon is collaborating with a amazing group of musicians: Joan Plana, violin; Martha Locker, piano; Michele Eaton, soprano; Alice Jones and Kelli Kathman, flutes; Jill Bartels and Steven Cohen, horns; Caleb Hudson and Chris Venditti, trumpets; and Kevin Vergillio, trombone. And, Robert Sherman, of WQXR and WFUV, will introduce the composer.

Peter Schickele will be attending the concert. Though he will not be performing, he will introduce all of his works on the program.

The good professor with his alter-ego.

Interview with Peter Schickele about P.D.Q. Bach
(Reprinted from my 2009 article in Berkshire Fine Arts)

If you enjoy classical music, you may have already heard of PDQ Bach. If not, here is a bit of the fascinating backgroud: P.D.Q. Bach once said that his illustrious father gave him no training in music whatsoever, and it is one of the few things he said that we can believe without reservation. His rebelliousness was such, in fact, that he avoided music as much as possible until he was well into his thirties.

By the mid 1770s he realized that, given his last name, writing music was the easiest thing he could do, and he began composing the works that were to catapult him into obscurity. Professor Peter Schickele discovered the deservedly forgotten works of PDQ Bach and has been inflicting them on unsuspecting world ever since.

We caught up with Herr Professor recently and talked with him about his creation, and the show he brought to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA back on Tuesday, June 30, 2009.

The first question we asked was if he was sorry for having spent his life promoting a non-existent composer, rather than his own works.

“I’ve never regretted creating the character of PDQ, though the one thing I would do if I were doing it over again, is to have used a funny name for the professor, funnier even than Schickele, not as a disguise, but as a signpost. Something like Professor Hassenpfeffer or something like that would separate me personally from the funny stuff. Some people don’t even know I write serious music, for woodwinds, for films and the like. When people see the name Schickele they are anticipating something boffo will happen.”

True, and it usually does.

Some of us who enjoy Schickele’s satire are also among those who have followed his serious works. His works reveal some of the same influences in their structure that color the work of Philip Glass, for example.

“Serious music and satire are both important to me. I am a big Spike Jones fan, and I just love making people laugh. It’s more than just putting food on the table.” Some of Schickele’s humor is slapstick, but there is also a lovely streak of subtlety. “That’s what it is all about for me. I just go by my own sense of humor which includes both of those.”

At 75, he no longer makes his entrance by hurtling down a rope from the second balcony.

Early on, Schickele the madman made his disheveled concert entrances plummeting down a rope from the balcony. Those antics have been retired for Schickele has reached his long awaited Golden Age. “Gone forever,” he admitted, chuckling, “physically I am not in the same shape I was twenty or thirty years ago. Even so, I promise you I will make an unusual entrance at the Colonial Theatre, just not as athletic as in the past.”

In pulling together some images to go with this story, it was amazing how much his snow-white beard made him look like Kris Kringle, was he contemplating yet another career? “Almost. I live in Woodstock, NY and here they have a Town Santa Claus every year, and they actually asked me if I would take the part, but I had a lot of concerts that conflicted, and never got to do it.”

Among Schickele fans, discussion about his return to the Berkshires has largely centered on the works to be performed, and whether he would be bringing any of his exotic musical instruments. “Yes, I will be bringing the Tromboon which has a most unusual timbre, both delicate and loud. It’s a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, combining all the disadvantages of both in one easy-to-schlep instrument.”

All of the crazy instruments he invented for the P.D.Q. Bach works actually worked. Here the tromboon, part trombone, part bassoon.

This is not the first instrument Schickele has invented for PDQ Bach. He’s equally well known for the Left Handed Sewer Flute, the Windbreaker and one that is played seated on a bicycle. The Tromboon come about by accident. “I actually played bassoon in high school, and one day discovered I could jigger the reed portion into it. And when I played it, it actually worked. The rest is history.” Schickele spent his teenage years in Fargo and was recruited to play bassoon in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony not long after moving to North Dakota with his family. This of course explains many of his Hoople, University of Southern North Dakota references.

Any more surprises for us? “Yes, in fact the Berkshire audience will get to hear another creation, the Lasso d’Amore which is a reticulated tube that you twirl around your head like a lasso, and the faster you twirl it, the higher the tones.”

Schickele also promises that among the PDQ Bach music delicacies will be a reading from The Little Notebook for “Piggy” Bach. Which part of these proceedings are the Jeckyll and which the Hyde may be difficult to pinpoint, but both will be hilarious.

Schickele also performs some Shakespeare speeches set to rock and roll. “We did a couple on Garrison Keillor’s Prarie Home Companion and they were a hit. Although I actually wrote them a long time ago, they seem to have become my new signature pieces. I took some of the famous Shakespeare speeches, and set them in a modern musical idiom. They will be the final treat of the show.”

Schickele will not be alone on stage with his strange instruments. . With him will be the Semi-Pro Musica Antiqua, consisting of singers Michelle Eaton (off-coloratura soprano) and David Dusing (tenor profundo). “They will perform such PDQ classics as the recently discovered Four Next-to-Last-Songs and the heart rendering Shepherd on the Rocks, with a twist. And of course my stage manager, Bill Walters who will be starting off the show as usual.” (No spoilers here for those who have not seen PDQ Bach before.)

PDQ Bach’s works have been received by the public with pretty universal laughter, perhaps not the goal of most composers, but better than being forgotten and ignored. But what of the musicians, the critics, the scholars? “PDQ Bach is something musicians love to play, it gives them a change of pace, and lets them goof off for a while. I play with many orchestras, and I rarely have come across any ill feelings from the musicians. In fact, they recognize that it is a satire of love. My favorite music is indeed Bach, and Mozart and Shubert. A musician from one orchestra I played with some time ago told me they were right in the middle of contract negotiations and boy, did we ever need this now!”

“On the other hand,” Schickele continues, “there was a well known educator, who I won’t name, who once said that: ‘Peter Schickele makes fun of things that some of us hold sacred.'” Ouch. What did Schickele think of that? “I always wished he had said it in public so I could use it in my advertising.”

Peter Schickele has a website dedicated to PDQ Bach, and his own works, with lots of humor, and samples of the CD’s you can order.

One thought on “Talking with the man who rediscovered PDQ Bach, Peter Schickele

  1. Pingback: Close Encounters with JS Bach, his uncle, sons, and the notable imposter, PDQ Bach | BERKSHIRE ON STAGE and SCREEN

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