Friday, March 1, 2024

Remembering Peter Schickele, the satirical composer behind P.D.Q. Bach : NPR


That is FRESH AIR. I am David Bianculli.


PETER SCHICKELE: Effectively, good day there, everyone. That is your pleasant professor, Peter Schickele.

BIANCULLI: The composer, musician, creator and comic Peter Schickele died final week. He was 88 years previous. Schickele had a severe background in classical music. He performed the bassoon and bought a grasp’s diploma in music from the Juilliard Faculty and even taught there. Over his lengthy profession, he composed greater than 100 severe musical works, symphonies, choral and chamber works, and solo instrumentals. He additionally wrote for movie and the theater. He equipped songs for the notorious Broadway musical “Oh! Calcutta!” and wrote the music for the cult science fiction film “Silent Working,” which included songs sung by Joan Baez.


JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) Fields of kids operating wild within the solar. Like a forest is your baby rising wild within the solar.

BIANCULLI: However Peter Schickele was finest identified for concocting, presenting and performing the works of P.D.Q. Bach, whom Schickele claimed was the youngest and oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20-odd youngsters. Schickele, claiming to be a musicologist, would carry out premieres of newly unearthed works by P.D.Q. Bach, works which demonstrated each Schickele’s skills as a composer and arranger and his shamelessly infantile humorousness.

P.D.Q.’s first work carried out onstage in 1965 was known as “Concerto For Horn And Hartart.” An album was launched that very same yr, launching a parody mini-empire that ended up eclipsing Schickele’s extra severe work. However Schickele had solely himself responsible. His hilarious P.D.Q. Bach compositions included his “Unbegun Symphony,” a mini-opera known as “The Civilian Barber” and a parody of the madrigal “My Bonny Lass She Smileth,” which in Schickele’s fingers or P.D.Q. Bach’s turned “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth.”


JOYFUL NOYSE: (Singing) My bonnie lass, she smelleth, making all of the flowers jealouth (ph). Fa, la, la, la, la. Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la.

BIANCULLI: Schickele turned creator in 1976, publishing a full-length biography of his nonexistent alter ego. Fittingly, it was devoted to 2 musicians and composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Spike Jones. Classical and comedy influences ran all through the works of P.D.Q. Bach, whether or not in his Philip Glass parody known as “Einstein On The Fritz” or his unusually acquainted overture “1712” for a very huge orchestra.


BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Peter Schickele in 1985.


SCHICKELE: Principally, what I’m is a composer. And I feel that P.D.Q. Bach grew very progressively. It didn’t begin with a profession in thoughts in any respect. It was one thing that began with mates in a lounge in Fargo, N.D. After which it began semi-publicly as live shows placed on at Juilliard and in addition at Aspen in the summertime for fellow school and college students. After which lastly in 1965, the primary actual public efficiency. And it was by no means deliberate, you realize, it simply form of occurred at first. However looking back, it appears very apparent to me that it is a prime instance of the factor that has all the time appeared true to me, and that’s that the majority satirists make enjoyable of what they like, not what they do not like.

I feel it is no accident that Spike Jones, who was the granddaddy of all of it for me – I used to be a Spike Jones freak once I was a child. His – the water he swam in was the ’30s and ’40s huge band model, dance band sort of factor. He even put out information with Spike Jones and his different orchestra that have been straight with out comedy. And since Bach and Mozart are two of my absolute favourite composers, there’s an affinity there, a stylistic affinity, that’s the solely motive that, a long time later, I am nonetheless having enjoyable doing this.

TERRY GROSS: You grew up in Ames, Iowa, and in Fargo, N.D. Was there a lot of a classical music scene in both of these two locations?

SCHICKELE: Effectively, we moved from Ames once I was 8 years previous. I haven’t got any specific reminiscence of that. I wasn’t notably desirous about music as a child. I used to be not a prodigy in any respect. I did not get desirous about music actually in any respect till I used to be 12, 13. We lived for 4 years on the finish of World Conflict II in Washington, D.C., after which I moved to Fargo. And it was then that I bought desirous about music, partly as a result of Spike Jones had such an exquisite stage present. I used to be very theatrically inclined. I used to be far more desirous about theater than music once I was 11 years previous.

And it was actually in an imitation of a Spike Jones stage present that I put collectively the primary little band I used to be in. It was a four-man band known as Jerky Jems and his Balmy Brothers. It featured two clarinets, violin and tom-tom. However through the teenage years, what occurred was that I bought simply an increasing number of concerned within the music for its personal sake and fewer and fewer within the theater. My reminiscences of Fargo are extraordinarily energetic. My brother was and is a fanatic chamber music participant, and he was all the time speaking youngsters into coming over and taking part in quartets. Not solely that, however among the many adults, a few of our greatest mates have been the conductor of the group orchestra, which, by the best way, in 1950 performed Massenet (ph).

And we have been getting collectively at dwelling taking part in the Schubert two-cello quintet and the Mozart and Beethoven quartets notably, and in addition the Brahms sextets and quintets. And it isn’t what individuals affiliate with Fargo, N.D., in any respect. It was a really energetic scene. And once I went east to go to varsity, first to Swarthmore Faculty after which to Juilliard, I used to be – I’ve all the time saved that form of beginner standing together with my skilled standing, within the sense that I nonetheless love writing rounds to be sung at events, and a whole lot of my finest items began out as birthday presents for anyone or one thing like that. And that very a lot comes from that ambiance of Fargo.

GROSS: What sort of music do you assume you have been going to compose while you first went to Juilliard?

SCHICKELE: Effectively, I assumed that I’d find yourself being a school instructor or one thing and writing. I imply, I knew what I wished to do was write, and that is form of the best way you made your residing in these days when you have been going to be a composer. I feel that my – I’ve all the time been very – nicely, fond is even the unsuitable expression. I’ve all the time cherished all kinds of non-classical sorts of music along with classical music. I’ve all the time cherished all kinds of folks and jazz and rock and ethnic music from world wide.

I feel that what’s occurred is – over the a long time is that I really feel that progressively these completely different sorts of music have had their affect on mine. I now write a bit that may be a common chamber music piece when it comes to its instrumentation or basically kind, but it surely’ll have a whole lot of jazz or rock sorts of issues in it. I take advantage of drones rather a lot, which partially got here from the fad of the – of listening to a whole lot of Indian music within the ’60s, you realize, and partially from the – from drone devices corresponding to a bagpipe and even the mountain dulcimer.

GROSS: Do you assume that there is any classical composers that we deal with a bit of too sanctimoniously?

SCHICKELE: Sure. I feel – my feeling about that’s that lots of people do not realize that the individuals who wrote that music weren’t as stuffy because the ambiance of live performance halls means that they have been. However I do really feel that the ambiance surrounding music within the 18th century was in all probability nearer to the ambiance that we’re aware of now when it comes to, as an instance, a jazz group or one thing that may be very severe in making ready its music, however typically extra light-hearted in his presentation.

As an illustration, one of many issues that annoys me is that due to my fame, I am unable to give a light-weight title to a severe piece as a result of if I do, everyone’s going to be on the lookout for one thing particularly humorous. Whereas in jazz, you fairly often get flippant titles for items which might be simply easy jazz items. You get a bit known as “Bike Up The Strand” or one thing like that. It is only a piece. It isn’t a joke piece.

I am unable to imagine – when you take a look at the packages of these live shows in Beethoven’s day, they will need to have gone on for 3 or 4 hours generally. Whenever you learn that the Handel organ concertos have been written to be performed between the acts of the oratorios, I am unable to imagine that the viewers simply sat there the best way we sit at a live performance now. I am positive there was a whole lot of noise. You learn within the nineteenth century that a few of the nice chess matches have been performed on the opera in a field, you realize? So I feel the angle was very completely different. And I do not even say that is the best way it should be. I like getting myself fully engrossed in a bit. I do not like audiences that make noise.

However I feel you pay a worth, you realize? We have now this factor now that you just should not applaud after actions. Within the nineteenth century, if the viewers appreciated the motion, they applauded generally to the purpose the place they needed to play the motion over once more. Now, you possibly can say that that destroys the structure of the symphony, but it surely’s additionally one thing that comes out of an amazing, spontaneous enthusiasm. Mozart wrote dwelling when he did the “Paris Symphony,” the final motion of which begins not with an enormous tutti, an enormous, loud factor immediately that everyone often expects in a symphony. However it begins with simply the primary and second violins scurrying round. After which lastly, 10 seconds into it, or no matter it’s, the entire orchestra comes blazing in. Apparently, the viewers was delighted and burst into applause proper then, when the orchestra got here in. And Mozart wrote that dwelling proudly ‘trigger he’d clearly bought him, you realize? He had delighted them. And I feel the value we pay for the very severe strategy – and as I say, I am of two minds about it ‘trigger I like not being distracted – however the worth we pay is a scarcity of spontaneity.

GROSS: Effectively, talking of significant approaches, while you make your entrance in your live shows, you have entered in some most uncommon methods. Do you wish to describe a few of the entrances you have made?

SCHICKELE: Effectively, now these, after all, are in P.D.Q. Bach live shows. The professor does have a behavior of not with the ability to discover the stage door of auditoriums, and so I have been identified to finish up within the balcony, and the one means I can get down rapidly to the orchestra ground is by shimmying down a rope from the balcony to the aisle or swinging in from the entrance of the balcony like Tarzan. It is true that this has occurred. However I feel that to do this in a live performance of Peter Schickele music can be to lift false expectations. So I attempt to discover the proper door in that case.

BIANCULLI: Peter Schickele talking to Terry Gross in 1985 – extra after a break. That is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: That is FRESH AIR. Let’s get again to Terry’s 1985 interview with Peter Schickele, a severe composer with a less-serious aspect, which he let free within the guise of his musical alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele died final week at age 88.

GROSS: I do not know if this has ever occurred, however have you ever ever been at a live performance the place the musicians have been laughing in the course of it and, you realize, simply ruining the live performance by laughing together with the joke as a substitute of being straight-faced?

SCHICKELE: Effectively, really, I do not ask them to be straight-faced anymore. Once I first began showing with symphony orchestras, I did, and I discovered that it form of places a moist blanket on it. Once I’m showing with my very own group, The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach, we’re very severe. However I discovered with a symphony orchestra, the ambiance is healthier if I do not try this. And, the truth is, I’ve gone a bit of bit – I’ve gone the opposite course in that I do not even do the whole lot on the rehearsal. I avoid wasting stuff for the efficiency to be a shock for the orchestra in addition to the viewers. It is a very empirical choice and what works, you realize?

You see; it is one factor – while you’re working with your individual group – individuals that you’ve got employed, auditioned, no matter; you place collectively The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach Group, as an example – there you possibly can work with them. You’re employed out the routine. The whole lot is kind of theatrically labored out. Within the case of my appearances with a symphony orchestra, I virtually by no means have greater than two rehearsals with them, generally just one. I do not know these individuals. A few of these individuals may be good comedians. A few of them won’t. Generally they’re higher comedians than they assume they’re. I’ve to form of discourage participation on their half. However what I’ve discovered is that if I inform individuals to not chortle, it is not pretty much as good a live performance as if I inform them, don’t be concerned about it.

So – and one of many issues I discovered, really, is that in cities the place the symphony issues, the place the – the place individuals actually care about their orchestra, often members of the viewers – I do not imply individuals on the board, both; I simply imply individuals who go repeatedly – they actually get to know the orchestra. They’ve individuals they notably like to observe. They possibly know the individuals, possibly not, however they know them from watching them, they usually love seeing them having a great time. I’ve had so many, had – so many occasions had individuals within the viewers say, nicely, it is so great to see that first cellist crack up. He is all the time so severe, you realize? And so I feel that that is a form of a – that is one thing that is value having, you realize?

GROSS: Whenever you first began performing earlier than you have been well-known, did musicians assume twice about taking part in with you as a result of they thought that they’d be taken as comedians as a substitute of significant musicians and it might need a unfavourable influence on their careers?

SCHICKELE: Effectively, there was a specific amount of that. I feel the very first humorous live performance wasn’t even known as P.D.Q. Bach at Juilliard once I was a pupil there in 1959. And Jorge Mester and I and another individuals put collectively a teeny little orchestra. Effectively, he put the orchestra collectively. However, I imply, it was in all probability two first violins and two seconds and a viola and a cello and a bass and some winds. And the quodlibet was written for that live performance actually in a single day, with mates, together with Phil Glass, sitting beside me, taking elements and copying elements as I completed the rating. And when it got here in, the quodlibet to the place the place Beethoven’s “Seventh Symphony” is mixed with “Tea For Two,” on the first and solely rehearsal, one of many violinists bought up and walked out and by no means got here again. There’s nothing we may do about it. And it wasn’t as if anyone’s being paid or if it was a college perform or one thing like that. She did not wish to play, she did not should. And so she bought up and walked out and by no means got here again.

However I feel one of many issues that was good is that – the truth that I did the live shows for six years at Juilliard and at Aspen meant that by the point I did the primary public live performance in ’65, it already had an underground fame amongst musicians as one thing enjoyable to do. So proper from the very starting in New York, and this has remained true, I’ve labored with the perfect freelance musicians. And the P.D.Q. Bach items replicate that. A few of them are fairly troublesome. Persons are typically shocked in the event that they attend a rehearsal at how exhausting we work on simply getting the music proper ‘trigger one of many issues I discovered from Spike Jones is the higher play it’s, the funnier it’s. You realize, you do not – it isn’t goofing off.

And so the excessive trumpet elements, as an example, are – it takes the actually good excessive trumpet gamers to play them, you realize? And it is as a result of I’ve all the time had the highest musicians. And one of many good issues about having completed it so long as I’ve is that I’ve performed with a lot of the orchestras within the nation and a lot of the main symphonies and plenty of group and school orchestras, and they also know that I am not out to make a idiot of them. And I am very cautious in my rehearsals to be very respectful of them as a result of my angle is that they aren’t employed to be comedians. They’re employed to play the music.

GROSS: Did anybody ever say to you that you just have been ruining your individual profession and your individual probabilities as a severe musician by focusing a lot on the musical satire that you just do?

SCHICKELE: Yeah, positively. I imply, there are people who find themselves followers of my severe music that a long time – years in the past, you realize, wished that I had given up P.D.Q. Bach. I feel the one factor I’d do otherwise if I needed to do it another time – the difficulty is I like that complete theatrical a part of me. I stated, you realize, once I was 11, when you’d ask me what I used to be going to be once I develop up, I’d have stated an actor or a playwright or one thing like that. That complete aspect of me, after all, may be very happy by the very theatrical nature of P.D.Q. Bach live shows.

The one factor I’d do otherwise, I feel, can be to make use of a humorous, phony identify for the professor, not as a secret however simply as a signpost – I imply, not attempting to maintain my id a secret however simply in order that Peter Schickele might be used for the the so-called severe music and the Professor Hossenfesser or no matter it is going to be can be used for P.D.Q. Bach as a result of it’s upsetting at a live performance that has a severe peace of thoughts if a bunch of individuals, as generally has occurred, are available simply decided to seek out one thing to chortle at.

Fairly often, individuals do not know that I do something severe, which is not stunning, however generally once they discover out that I do, they don’t seem to be solely shocked, however even disillusioned. It is form of like, oh, this is one other clown who needs to play Hamlet, you realize? And I’ve no want to shove my severe music down individuals’s throats. One of many causes that I work exhausting on attempting to get as a lot of it recorded as doable is it tends that strategy to get out to people who find themselves desirous about it. I get very good suggestions from individuals who’ve heard it on classical music stations. And – however I could not put a severe piece on a P.D.Q. Bach live performance ‘trigger everyone can be ready for one thing humorous to occur.

BIANCULLI: Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach, talking to Terry Gross in 1985. Schickele died final week at age 88. After a break, we bear in mind Mary Weiss, the lead singer of The Shangri-Las, the lady group finest identified for the tune “Chief Of The Pack.” And I will evaluation the brand new Apple TV+ miniseries about World Conflict II pilots, “Masters Of The Air.” Here is yet another pattern from a P.D.Q. Bach piece, the unforgettable ending to his oratorio known as “The Seasonings,” with the refrain singing, to curry favor, favor curry. The finale consists of an instrument hardly ever heard in live performance, the airhorn. I am David Bianculli, and that is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) To curry favor, favor curry.

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