Peter Schickele: Humor in Music

The Birth of P.D.Q. Bach

Frank J. Oteri: So the birth of P.D.Q. Bach … What’s so interesting about it 40 years later is how in everything you do you’re sort of poking holes into everything that’s wrong with how we listen to classical music as an audience. But in a way, it’s sort of everything that’s right as well.

Peter Schickele: People often ask if symphony orchestra musicians like P.D.Q. Bach , and they tend to overwhelmingly like it. I think one of the reasons is that they recognize it as a satire of love. Most satirists make fun of what they like, not what they don’t like. Victor Borge studied to be a concert pianist and Anna Russell studied to be an opera singer. Spike Jones, when rock ‘n’ roll came in, which he hated, couldn’t do good take-offs on it. He thought it was a satire of itself and it remained for Stan Freberg to come along and do take-offs on rock ‘n’ roll. I think in retrospect it seems no accident that P.D.Q. Bach was a late-18th century composer, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, because Bach and Mozart are two of my favorite composers. If I were trying to do P. D. Q. Wagner, or some composer whose music I like but don’t have the affinity for, I would have been tired of doing it a long time ago.

The very beginning of the answer to your question actually goes back 50 years to 1953. These were the early days of home tape recorders. My brother David and I had a friend named Ernie. Ernie was a musician, played cello and horn, but he also loved technical stuff. He later became a ham radio operator. We got interested in the idea of overdubbing using two tape recorders. It will be hard for younger people to imagine this, but you didn’t just push a button. You had to match the impedance of the two machines and all that sort of stuff, which was right up Ernie’s alley. So one afternoon the three of us got together and recorded the first movement of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 with my brother playing all the top string parts, Ernie playing the lower string parts, and I did the solo flute, oboe, and trumpet parts, which are really high, on the bassoon two octaves lower. It sort of sounded like mud wrestling but we had a great time doing it. We decided to get together the following week and do something else again.

Meanwhile we had been listening to one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s few humorous works, the Coffee Cantata. And here, speaking about different kinds of humor, if you listen to this piece in German and you don’t understand German, there’s nothing funny about it. It’s just a cantata. But it’s about a father whose daughter insists on drinking coffee. I guess this was a hot issue in the 18th century. It was sort of a symbol for her not following her father’s wishes, also in terms of the men she was attracted to. We had been listening to the Coffee Cantata, so the next week when we got together I turned up with this piece called the “Sanka Cantata” and we recorded it. Then we decided to make it in the form of a radio broadcast. I have to emphasize that this was all just for our own fun, not thinking of any public exposure. So if this piece was a radio broadcast it had to have a composer. Bach of course had many children and many of them became composers. People who are into classical, and particularly Baroque music and 18th-century music, know about J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, and W.F. Bach, so one of the three of us said, “Well, how about P.D.Q. Bach ?” Some younger people don’t know that P.D.Q. was an expression from the 1920s meaning “pretty damn quick.” It was the 1920s equivalent of ASAP. You’d say, get over here PDQ. So one of us said, “How about P.D.Q. Bach ?” Ernie doesn’t remember himself, but Ernie’s mother says it was Ernie who thought of that. Which one of us thought of it is sort of lost in the mist of time. But we did the radio broadcast and sort of talked a little about this composer and where it was discovered. We gave recordings to friends and people enjoyed it and everything. For six years that was it in terms of P.D.Q. Bach.

Then in 1959, when I was a composition major at Juilliard getting my masters there, Jorge Mester, the conductor, myself and a few other people put on a humorous concert. It wasn’t even a whole concert. It couldn’t have been more casual. It was a Wednesday night and I’m afraid that the poor piano soloist in the first half. You know, something followed by something funny usually gets a little obliterated. But he did his half of the recital and we had the second half.

In those days there was a restaurant chain called Horn & Hardart—they had the automats where you put nickels in the slots, opened up the little door, and took your little piece of pie out. They were a fixture in New York and Philadelphia and Boston. Somebody had said to me that somebody should write a concerto for horn and Hardart. I’ve always thought that was one of the great ideas of Western man. So when this concert came up I spent a couple of weeks in hardware stores and toy stores with a tuning fork, because I don’t have perfect pitch, looking for anything that made a pitch because my idea of the Hardart was that each note would be as different as possible from every other note. So, I’m making these pitches up, but for C you’d hit a mixing bowl—thong! Then for C# you’d blow on a Coke bottle and for D you’d pluck a string… so as different as possible. I did all this shopping but I’m a terrible procrastinator, always put things off to the last minute, and so in the end Phil Glass actually helped me put the Hardart together and mount these things on a board so you could play them.


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Much of the music was literally written overnight, the night before the concert. There was another piece on the program called The Quodlibet, which is a musical term for pieces where melodies that were written separately are shown to be able to fit together. It’s an old technique. Bach’s family used to do it, finding folk songs that fit together. For an alumni thing at Juilliard years later, maybe a decade ago or so, they asked me to provide some entertainment and we did that piece in its original version. I got out the parts that were used in that concert in 1959 and each part, say if you’re looking at the flute part, it goes for several lines and then the handwriting changes and goes for some more lines, and then the handwriting changes. This was before Xerox machines. I would finish a little section of the score with all the parts written on the same page and I would hand it to Philip and he’d copy this far and then he’d hand it to Larry Widdoes, and he’d copy more instruments from that, and Dick Peaslee would maybe copy some others. The next afternoon, while a tiny little orchestra of volunteers was rehearsing the first movement of the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, we were sitting out in the audience copying the last movement.

In that Quodlibet piece, there’s one place where a theme from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is combined with “Tea for Two.” A very serious young violinist got up and walked out and never came back. Nothing we could do, she wasn’t being paid. So she was one of the exceptions to when I said that musicians tend to get a big kick out of it.

Frank J. Oteri: What were the reactions of other composers to this music?

Peter Schickele: The only one I remember was Persichetti who enjoyed it. As a matter of fact, I remember that he had a criticism of one place where I brought an incongruous theme in and it was a repeated section and he didn’t think I should have it there both times, just have it there one time. So he was thinking about it as a humorous work. I don’t remember at that time but I definitely remember a composer/educator who was a head of a musical institution once asked Jorge Mester, the conductor, he said, “Are you still doing this P.D.Q. Bach thing with Peter Schickele?” And Jorge said, “Yeah, isn’t it great.” And this man said, “No, I can’t agree with you. Peter Schickele makes fun of things that some of us hold sacred.” I’ve always wished that he said that in public because I would have used it on my posters if I could. Here again, as I say, he seems to have been the exception.

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