Peter Schickele: Humor in Music

How Classical Music’s Past Can Help Its Future

Frank J. Oteri: Now one of the things that I find to be one of the sublime ironies of your career and the career of P.D.Q. Bach is it’s without a doubt true that P.D.Q. Bach is one of the most performed contemporary American composers. Yet ironically the persona of P.D.Q. Bach is neither contemporary nor American. I think it strikes to the heart—and I kind of want to morph this into a discussion of Peter Schickele the composer—of what’s wrong with this classical music world we live in that obsessively dotes on the past, and not just the past, but Europe’s past, rather than America’s present.

Peter Schickele: That is certainly a subject that people have been obsessed with for at least half of a century, more than that, but it’s gotten complicated. We’re talking about generalizations here, and there are always exceptions to everything. For my tastes, and for many other people’s tastes, that post-Webern direction that music took after the Second World War was very much associated with numbers, turning its back on any feeling of sentiment in the music, relinquishing control of the music to patterns…In other words what you did was build the machine, the little musical machine, and then it spewed out the piece. In some cases it was almost literally true that once you setup what your system was going to be the piece then wrote itself. Also, the music made a point of getting away from two things which had been basic in Western music for at least centuries, if not millennia, and that was tonality—having a feeling of a home base key—and a beat were not so much neglected but studiously avoided. That right there will alienate a lot of people, including myself.

I’ll give an example: I was at a seminar in 1959 at Princeton which was very much one of the seats of this approach to composition. I remember someone talking about a study they actually did to figure out what was the least expected next note [in a series], because that was what they wanted to use. My feeling was always that the way that you do something unexpected is you do it twice the same way and the third time differently.

One thing that happened, which for my taste was unfortunate and didn’t work out…What we think of as classical music has always had patrons. It was princes in the old days, or it was the church usually. They paid for it. In the second half of the 20th century in this country the university became the patron. That seems to have fostered a sort of getting lost in one’s own navel, because your job wasn’t dependent on how much people liked your music. It’s very easy to say that a composer like Beethoven was doing what his inner voice told him and not what people wanted to hear, and it’s certainly true, but that’s a continuum. Beethoven also wrote the Moonlight Sonata and the Fifth Symphony, two of the most popular pieces then as well as now, that everyone wanted to hear. He didn’t start out saying, “I don’t care what anyone thinks.” Or a better way to put it is that what he wanted to hear has something to do with what other people want to hear.

Frank J. Oteri: By the end he couldn’t hear any of it anyway.

Peter Schickele: Right, a special case…But the point here is that to me it’s a continuum, the business between the pure artist who won’t pay any attention to what anyone else thinks, and the pure commercial person who will do anything that’s going to work and make money.


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It’s not two boxes: serious, commercial. It’s a continuum. Mozart cared how his audiences were going to react. When he went to Paris he knew that they liked a certain kind of beginning for their symphonies. So he wrote that kind of thing where everyone is in unison. There are plenty of composers who had very individual visions who nevertheless cared how the music was received. So it just got very far towards that end of the continuum, what you might call a pure artist. I think that, although it sounds a little crass to say so, that fact, that the composer’s job was not contingent upon the reaction to their music except in a very sort of academic way—in other words how much could you write essays about it—meant that it became quite isolated. It’s sort of typical, or at least it’s happened before, that when something gets painted into a corner, what jars it loose comes out of left field. In the 18th century it was opera. In the second half of the 20th century it was minimalism. It was Phil Glass and Steve Reich and Terry Riley and also somewhat the Asian-oriented composers like Lou Harrison. Minimalism, which at first everybody loved to hate in the classical music world, brought back two things with a vengeance. One of them was tonality and the other was the beat.

Frank J. Oteri: One thing I find so interesting—this is a good segue into talking about your music—in listening to that disc of the String Sextet with the Lark Quartet, is how I feel your music has been influenced by minimalism without actually being minimalist.

Peter Schickele: Well, I think that’s happened with a lot of composers.

Frank J. Oteri: It’s probably music that could not have been written had minimalism not happened, but it isn’t minimalist music.

Peter Schickele: Right. I’ve always liked repetition, at least up to a point. Not as much as Philip’s early works for instance which were really austere. I mean, solo violin going on for an hour. I’m one of those people who could easily have the end of the Beatles‘ “Hey Jude” go on even longer. I mean [sings the ending melody from “Hey Jude”], I like repetition. But you’re right. Philip is certainly one of the biggest influences in my music, but I’ve never written a piece that really sounds like him in all ways.

One other thing that I wanted to mention about minimalism: it came in, was very austere, very stringent to a lot of people, but what it ended up doing was influencing a lot of younger composers, composers who went on like John Adams to broaden their vision very much.

Another thing that Philip, Steve, and Terry Riley brought back into music, that had gone out very much in the previous era was the composer as performer. In the old days, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, it was taken for granted that you played your music. In some ways with Mozart in the 18th century it was a little bit like it is now. You didn’t necessarily make money writing the piece, you made money touring with it. Philip not only could play, he went out with his group like a rock group. As a matter of fact, he put effort into getting his records out of the classical department, because the people who liked his music weren’t the classical music people, they were college students in the beginning.

Frank J. Oteri: So to bring this to you, who are the people who like your music? Are they the classical music audience or some sort of combination?

Peter Schickele: I think a combination because certainly a lot of classical music people do like my music. As you’ve pointed out something like that String Sextet, for instance, there’s a lot of European influence in there, very much out of a sort of Brahmsian background, even though you wouldn’t mistake it for Brahms, as well as all of the American and minimalist influences. I guess there is a mixture there. Of course there are also people now who feel the post-World War II era that I was talking about is the golden era, you know. They think music has really been dumbed down now. You can’t please everybody all of the time.

Frank J. Oteri: One of the big dumbing down areas that I think we’d probably all agree on is what’s happened to radio. I wanted to talk about that a little bit because you’ve done some wonderful things on radio. Last night I was listening to that CD that you did poking fun at classical radio. It was 12 or 13 years ago now but I was listening to it thinking this really is what classical radio sounds like.

Peter Schickele: Usually it’s difficult to stay ahead of reality. As you know on that program that station had these rules. I don’t remember them exactly, but no vocal music during office hours and no music in minor keys during the day…

Frank J. Oteri: No music written after 1914!

Peter Schickele: Right. It was actually very soon after that album came out that stations didn’t want to play vocal music during office hours because people use classical music as background music and vocal music is distracting if you’re working in an office or a bank. Classical music is not a part of the fabric of our culture like it was when I was young. One of the easiest ways to talk about that is ways that are not in themselves important. The opening of the Metropolitan Opera season used to be a gala social thing. You’d see the pictures the next day in the paper. That may not have anything to do with music, but it indicates who was going, and they were the people giving money to it.

In those days movie music was classically oriented. A lot of the movie composers—Miklós Rózsa and Dimitri Tiomkin who both grew up in Europe—were classically trained and wrote “serious” music—I hate that term! For two reasons: not only that it implies that jazz, rock, folk, and movie music isn’t serious, but also because it implies that something is either serious or funny whereas a lot of my favorite stuff—like Haydn, Scarlatti, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie—is in between. Anyway, all I’m saying is that it was sort of a signpost or an indication that movie music was basically classical. Now, with the exception of John Williams, it’s much more likely to be pop oriented.

Frank J. Oteri: Except now you have a few established “serious” composers writing film music like John Corigliano, Philip Glass, Tan Dun

Peter Schickele: Yeah, but very few. That’s about it.

Frank J. Oteri: They’re winning Oscars.

Peter Schickele: Yeah. I wrote a review for the New York Times of a book by André Previn about his years in Hollywood of writing for MGM. What you really realize when you read that book is people wanted you to “give me some Richard Strauss,” “give me some Debussy,” “give me some Tchaikovsky.” Whereas in Europe William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Poulenc, they all did movie music and people wanted their music. You know, they weren’t asking them to write in someone else’s style. That seems to me a real difference between Europe and America, though there are exceptions.

A lot of people tend to think of the symphony orchestra as a given, but it didn’t exist before 1750. There’s no reason why the best composers are going to want to write for it now. I mean it isn’t a given. It’s a particular sound that was developed gradually. What we think of as its flowering in the orchestration of a modern Philadelphia Orchestra is a late-19th-century creation.

Frank J. Oteri: So is it too late?

Peter Schickele: I don’t know. I do think the one thing that has to happen and has happened is that you get other venues. When Boulez was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic they had these things called rug concerts because before the renovation of what is now called Avery Fisher, then Philharmonic Hall, you could remove the seats easily. So they would remove the seats and they put rugs and pillows all over the place. The orchestra is in the middle of the floor and people were seated all around. I happened to go to one of those concerts that had some of the same repertoire on it that had been a regular subscription concert and it was fascinating to hear how much livelier the reception of the audience was at the rug concert. That affected Boulez’s performance, even a repertoire item of Schumann or something was affected by the liveliness of the response. It seems amazing that this could hang on this architectural fact. When they renovated the hall you couldn’t do that anymore. I’ve talked to people in the orchestra administration who said they want to do that, but we can’t figure out where to do it. If we do it at a different place people won’t come. The big organizations haven’t worked that out. It may be that the symphony orchestra is just going to largely become a museum where you get to play this great music from the past. Meanwhile, certainly in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I think I listened to pop music more than I listened to classical music myself. It’s just so exciting what was going on in it.

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