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


That is FRESH AIR. I am David Bianculli.


PETER SCHICKELE: Properly, howdy 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 He was 88 years outdated. Schickele had a severe background in classical music. He performed the bassoon and acquired 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 youngsters operating wild within the solar. Like a forest is your little one rising wild within the solar.

BIANCULLI: However Peter Schickele was greatest 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 12 months, launching a parody mini-empire that ended up eclipsing Schickele’s extra severe work. However Schickele had solely himself guilty. 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 palms 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 surprisingly acquainted overture “1712” for a very massive orchestra.


BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Peter Schickele in 1985.


SCHICKELE: Principally, what I’m is a composer. And I believe that P.D.Q. Bach grew very steadily. It didn’t begin with a profession in thoughts in any respect. It was one thing that began with buddies 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 college and college students. After which lastly in 1965, the primary actual public efficiency. And it was by no means deliberate, you understand, it simply form of occurred to start with. However looking back, it appears very apparent to me that this can be a prime instance of the factor that has at all times appeared true to me, and that’s that the majority satirists make enjoyable of what they like, not what they do not like.

I believe 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 massive band type, dance band sort of factor. He even put out information with Spike Jones and his different orchestra that had 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: Properly, we moved from Ames once I was 8 years outdated. I haven’t got any explicit reminiscence of that. I wasn’t notably thinking about music as a child. I used to be not a prodigy in any respect. I did not get thinking about music actually in any respect till I used to be 12, 13. We lived for 4 years on the finish of World Struggle II in Washington, D.C., after which I moved to Fargo. And it was then that I acquired thinking 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 rather more thinking about theater than music once I was 11 years outdated.

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 acquired simply increasingly concerned within the music for its personal sake and fewer and fewer within the theater. My recollections of Fargo are extraordinarily energetic. My brother was and is a fanatic chamber music participant, and he was at all times speaking youngsters into coming over and taking part in quartets. Not solely that, however among the many adults, a few of our greatest buddies had been the conductor of the neighborhood orchestra, which, by the best way, in 1950 performed Massenet (ph).

And we had been getting collectively at residence 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 is not what folks affiliate with Fargo, N.D., in any respect. It was a really energetic scene. And once I went east to go to school, first to Swarthmore School after which to Juilliard, I used to be – I’ve at all times 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 number of my greatest items began out as birthday presents for anyone or one thing like that. And that very a lot comes from that environment of Fargo.

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

SCHICKELE: Properly, I assumed that I’d find yourself being a school instructor or one thing and writing. I imply, I knew what I needed to do was write, and that is form of the best way you made your residing in these days in the event you had been going to be a composer. I believe that my – I’ve at all times been very – effectively, fond is even the mistaken expression. I’ve at all times cherished all kinds of non-classical sorts of music along with classical music. I’ve at all times cherished all kinds of folks and jazz and rock and ethnic music from all over the world.

I believe that what’s occurred is – over the a long time is that I really feel that steadily these totally different sorts of music have had their affect on mine. I now write a chunk that may be a common chamber music piece by way of its instrumentation or usually kind, nevertheless it’ll have a number of jazz or rock sorts of issues in it. I take advantage of drones lots, which partially got here from the fad of the – of listening to a number of Indian music within the ’60s, you understand, and partially from the – from drone devices resembling a bagpipe and even the mountain dulcimer.

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

SCHICKELE: Sure. I believe – 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 environment of live performance halls means that they had been. However I do really feel that the environment surrounding music within the 18th century was in all probability nearer to the environment that we’re conversant in now by way of, to illustrate, a jazz group or one thing that could be very severe in getting ready its music, however typically extra light-hearted in his presentation.

For example, one of many issues that annoys me is that due to my fame, I am unable to give a lightweight title to a severe piece as a result of if I do, everyone’s going to be searching 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 chunk known as “Bike Up The Strand” or one thing like that. It is only a piece. It is not a joke piece.

I am unable to consider – in the event you have a look at the packages of these live shows in Beethoven’s day, they should have gone on for 3 or 4 hours typically. If you learn that the Handel organ concertos had been written to be performed between the acts of the oratorios, I am unable to consider that the viewers simply sat there the best way we sit at a live performance now. I am positive there was a number of noise. You learn within the nineteenth century that a number of the nice chess matches had been performed on the opera in a field, you understand? So I believe the perspective was very totally different. And I do not even say that is the best way it should be. I like getting myself utterly engrossed in a chunk. I do not like audiences that make noise.

However I believe you pay a worth, you understand? We’ve got this factor now that you just should not applaud after actions. Within the nineteenth century, if the viewers favored the motion, they applauded typically 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, nevertheless it’s additionally one thing that comes out of an incredible, spontaneous enthusiasm. Mozart wrote residence when he did the “Paris Symphony,” the final motion of which begins not with an enormous tutti, an enormous, loud factor straight away that everyone often expects in a symphony. Nevertheless 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 residence proudly ‘trigger he’d clearly acquired him, you understand? He had delighted them. And I believe 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: Properly, talking of significant approaches, once you make your entrance in your live shows, you have entered in some most uncommon methods. Do you need to describe a number of the entrances you have made?

SCHICKELE: Properly, now these, in fact, 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 manner 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 believe that to do this in a live performance of Peter Schickele music can be to boost false expectations. So I attempt to discover the suitable 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 facet, 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 had been laughing in the midst of it and, you understand, simply ruining the live performance by laughing together with the joke as a substitute of being straight-faced?

SCHICKELE: Properly, really, I do not ask them to be straight-faced anymore. After I first began showing with symphony orchestras, I did, and I discovered that it form of places a moist blanket on it. After 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 environment is best if I do not try this. And, in reality, I’ve gone just a little bit – I’ve gone the opposite path in that I do not even do every part 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 understand?

You see; it is one factor – once you’re working with your individual group – folks that you have employed, auditioned, no matter; you place collectively The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach Group, as an illustration – there you possibly can work with them. You’re employed out the routine. Every little thing 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, typically just one. I do not know these folks. A few of these folks is likely to 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 folks to not giggle, it is not nearly 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 folks actually care about their orchestra, often members of the viewers – I do not imply folks on the board, both; I simply imply individuals who go frequently – they actually get to know the orchestra. They’ve folks they notably like to observe. They perhaps know the folks, perhaps not, however they know them from watching them, and so they love seeing them having a great time. I’ve had so many, had – so many occasions had folks within the viewers say, effectively, it is so great to see that first cellist crack up. He is at all times so severe, you understand? And so I believe that that is a form of a – that is one thing that is value having, you understand?

GROSS: If you first began performing earlier than you had 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 may need a unfavourable influence on their careers?

SCHICKELE: Properly, there was a certain quantity of that. I believe 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 folks put collectively a teeny little orchestra. Properly, 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 buddies, 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 acquired 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 faculty perform or one thing like that. She did not need to play, she did not need to. And so she acquired up and walked out and by no means got here again.

However I believe 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 mirror that. A few of them are fairly tough. Persons are typically stunned in the event that they attend a rehearsal at how onerous 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 do not – it is not goofing off.

And so the excessive trumpet elements, as an illustration, are – it takes the actually good excessive trumpet gamers to play them, you understand? And it is as a result of I’ve at all times had the highest musicians. And one of many good issues about having accomplished 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 neighborhood and faculty 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 perspective is that they don’t seem to be employed to be comedians. They’re employed to play the music.

GROSS: Did anybody ever say to you that you just had 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 understand, wished that I had given up P.D.Q. Bach. I believe the one factor I’d do otherwise if I needed to do it another time – the difficulty is I really like that complete theatrical a part of me. I stated, you understand, once I was 11, in the event 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 facet of me, in fact, could be very happy by the very theatrical nature of P.D.Q. Bach live shows.

The one factor I’d do otherwise, I believe, can be to make use of a humorous, phony title for the professor, not as a secret however simply as a signpost – I imply, not attempting to maintain my identification 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 should 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 typically has occurred, are available simply decided to search out one thing to giggle at.

Fairly often, folks do not know that I do something severe, which is not stunning, however typically once they discover out that I do, they don’t seem to be solely stunned, however even disillusioned. It is form of like, oh, this is one other clown who needs to play Hamlet, you understand? And I’ve no want to shove my severe music down folks’s throats. One of many causes that I work onerous on attempting to get as a lot of it recorded as attainable is it tends that option to get out to people who find themselves thinking 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 greatest identified for the tune “Chief Of The Pack.” And I will overview the brand new Apple TV+ miniseries about World Struggle II pilots, “Masters Of The Air.” This is 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 not often 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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