Peter Schickele: Humor in Music

Merging Two Separate Compositional Streams

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve talked about how P.D.Q. Bach is much more frequently performed than Peter Schickele. Are you happy about that? How do we get more of the non-P.D.Q. Bach music out there?

Peter Schickele: Well, you say, “Are you happy with that?” I say that I’m cool with it. [laughs] I’ve always had a long-term view. Even though P.D.Q. Bach gets played more than Peter Schickele, it’s nevertheless true, I have as many Peter Schickele commissions as I can handle. I couldn’t accept more than I have.

Frank J. Oteri: Is that because you’re busy fulfilling P.D.Q. discoveries?

Peter Schickele: No, not in the last 10 years. No. I do very little P.D.Q. Bach. In the annual concerts that we have here in New York City I try to have at least one new thing every year, but I’m doing much, much more Peter Schickele stuff, so I really can’t complain. Also, life is sad and people like to laugh, you know, in the movies as well as in anything else. Comedy is popular, so it’s not a big surprise to me. Also, as I indicated by telling you my background, it’s a very important to me, too.

Frank J. Oteri: You also said that some of the Schickele stuff is also funny.

Peter Schickele: Yeah, I’ve put in out-and-out funny stuff in serious pieces. That gets me into trouble. A horn concerto I did that features magic tricks in one movement, if it’s done live he finds flowers in the horn and things.

Frank J. Oteri: That’s a Schickele piece?

Peter Schickele: Yes. It’s preceded by three very serious movements including a slow movement that is one of the most atmospheric things I’ve ever done. Then there is this magician movement. The horn player that commissioned it said, “You know these conductors tell me that it’s too serious for a pops concert and too out there for a subscription concert.” I mean that’s one of the reasons that I like certain Shostakovich pieces a lot. He did that kind of, too. His Fifteenth Symphony is a perfectly serious piece, but you get [sings Rossini’s William Tell Overture].

Frank J. Oteri: It’s hysterical. The first time I heard it I burst out laughing. So my last question then… Obviously if someone laughs during a P.D.Q. piece, that’s kind of what they’re supposed to do.

Peter Schickele: You hope they do, yeah.

Frank J. Oteri: How would you feel if somebody laughed in the middle of a Peter Schickele piece?

Peter Schickele: Well, that has happened. Actually when I am involved in a presentation of my music I like to introduce the piece verbally rather than use program notes for two reasons. One because I’m a personable person and contemporary music, for better or for worse, has gotten a lot of bad reactions in the last half-century. But also because by talking about it I can give people an indication of what kind of piece they’re going to hear. You can’t be hardnosed about this. You can’t say, “This is a serious piece, don’t laugh!” That’s a downer.

Frank J. Oteri: Don’t applaud between movements.

Peter Schickele: Exactly, same kind of thing. If people applaud between movements, that’s fine with me. It is true that expectations play a role. I wrote a piece for John Ferrante, the countertenor I worked with for about 20 years. We did all of these P.D.Q. Bach concerts together, but we’d always wanted to do a serious piece together, I mean, me write a serious piece for him. The opportunity came up with a chamber orchestra in Philadelphia. At the premiere I introduced the piece and I just talked about the poem that I used and the pastoral feeling of it and everything like that. The piece went over beautifully and in the comments afterwards and everything I could see that people really got into it. Then it was done several years later at a concert in Brooklyn, a concert having to do with Brooklyn composers, and in addition to that piece Iphigenia in Brooklyn, the P.D.Q. Bach Cantata, was also on there. Particularly then, much more than even now, a lot of people didn’t even know that I wrote serious music. So they saw my name there and assumed it was going to be funny. The thing is that if that’s your mindset, you’ll find something to laugh at, particularly with a singer. He’ll do some gesture and you’ll laugh. So it wasn’t the whole audience, but there were a few people down front that were sort of laughing at regular gestures that John did. That goes back to the whole context thing. There are real opera singers who do gestures that are very easy to make fun of because they’re pretty out there. If I write something that has the magician movement in it, or if I write something funny in a “serious” piece, I would be sad if people didn’t laugh. My analogy has always been that people accept a movie or a novel or a play that is a basically serious work with comic scenes in it. It seems like it’s only in classical music, and I don’t mean across the board, but it’s only in the classical music world that people expect it to be funny or serious, not a mixture.

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