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


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.


PETER SCHICKELE: Well, hello there, everybody. This is your friendly professor, Peter Schickele.

BIANCULLI: The composer, musician, author and comedian Peter Schickele died last week. He was 88 years old. Schickele had a serious background in classical music. He played the bassoon and got a master's degree in music from the Juilliard School and even taught there. Over his long career, he composed more than 100 serious musical works, symphonies, choral and chamber works, and solo instrumentals. He also wrote for film and the theater. He supplied songs for the infamous Broadway musical "Oh! Calcutta!" and wrote the music for the cult science fiction movie "Silent Running," which included songs sung by Joan Baez.


JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) Fields of children running wild in the sun. Like a forest is your child growing wild in the sun.

BIANCULLI: But Peter Schickele was best known 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 children. Schickele, claiming to be a musicologist, would perform premieres of newly unearthed works by P.D.Q. Bach, works which demonstrated both Schickele's talents as a composer and arranger and his shamelessly childish sense of humor.

P.D.Q.'s first work performed onstage in 1965 was called "Concerto For Horn And Hartart." An album was released that same year, launching a parody mini-empire that ended up eclipsing Schickele's more serious work. But Schickele had only himself to blame. His hilarious P.D.Q. Bach compositions included his "Unbegun Symphony," a mini-opera called "The Civilian Barber" and a parody of the madrigal "My Bonny Lass She Smileth," which in Schickele's hands or P.D.Q. Bach's became "My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth."


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

BIANCULLI: Schickele turned author in 1976, publishing a full-length biography of his nonexistent alter ego. Fittingly, it was dedicated to two musicians and composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Spike Jones. Classical and comedy influences ran throughout the works of P.D.Q. Bach, whether in his Philip Glass parody called "Einstein On The Fritz" or his strangely familiar overture "1712" for a really big orchestra.


BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Peter Schickele in 1985.


SCHICKELE: Basically, what I am is a composer. And I think that P.D.Q. Bach grew very gradually. It did not start with a career in mind at all. It was something that started with friends in a living room in Fargo, N.D. And then it started semi-publicly as concerts put on at Juilliard and also at Aspen in the summer for fellow faculty and students. And then finally in 1965, the first real public performance. And it was never planned, you know, it just sort of happened in the beginning. But in retrospect, it seems very obvious to me that this is a prime example of the thing that has always seemed true to me, and that is that most satirists make fun of what they like, not what they don't like.

I think it's no accident that Spike Jones, who was the granddaddy of it all for me - I was a Spike Jones freak when I was a kid. His - the water he swam in was the '30s and '40s big band style, dance band kind of thing. He even put out records with Spike Jones and his other orchestra that were straight without comedy. And since Bach and Mozart are two of my absolute favorite composers, there's an affinity there, a stylistic affinity, that is the only reason that, decades later, I'm still having fun doing this.

TERRY GROSS: You grew up in Ames, Iowa, and in Fargo, N.D. Was there much of a classical music scene in either of those two places?

SCHICKELE: Well, we moved from Ames when I was 8 years old. I don't have any particular memory of that. I wasn't particularly interested in music as a kid. I was not a prodigy at all. I didn't get interested in music really at all until I was 12, 13. We lived for four years at the end of World War II in Washington, D.C., and then I moved to Fargo. And it was then that I got interested in music, partly because Spike Jones had such a wonderful stage show. I was very theatrically inclined. I was much more interested in theater than music when I was 11 years old.

And it was really in an imitation of a Spike Jones stage show that I put together the first little band I was in. It was a four-man band called Jerky Jems and his Balmy Brothers. It featured two clarinets, violin and tom-tom. But during the teenage years, what happened was that I got just more and more involved in the music for its own sake and less and less in the theater. My memories of Fargo are extremely lively. My brother was and is a fanatic chamber music player, and he was always talking kids into coming over and playing quartets. Not only that, but among the adults, some of our best friends were the conductor of the community orchestra, which, by the way, in 1950 played Massenet (ph).

And we were getting together at home playing the Schubert two-cello quintet and the Mozart and Beethoven quartets particularly, and also the Brahms sextets and quintets. And it's not what people associate with Fargo, N.D., at all. It was a very lively scene. And when I went east to go to college, first to Swarthmore College and then to Juilliard, I was - I've always kept that sort of amateur standing along with my professional standing, in the sense that I still love writing rounds to be sung at parties, and a lot of my best pieces started out as birthday presents for somebody or something like that. And that very much comes from that atmosphere of Fargo.

GROSS: What kind of music do you think you were going to compose when you first went to Juilliard?

SCHICKELE: Well, I assumed that I would end up being a college teacher or something and writing. I mean, I knew what I wanted to do was write, and that's sort of the way you made your living in those days if you were going to be a composer. I think that my - I've always been very - well, fond is even the wrong expression. I've always loved all sorts of non-classical kinds of music in addition to classical music. I've always loved all sorts of folk and jazz and rock and ethnic music from around the world.

I think that what's happened is - over the decades is that I feel that gradually those different kinds of music have had their influence on mine. I now write a piece that is a regular chamber music piece in terms of its instrumentation or in general form, but it'll have a lot of jazz or rock kinds of things in it. I use drones a lot, which partially came from the fad of the - of listening to a lot of Indian music in the '60s, you know, and partially from the - from drone instruments such as a bagpipe and even the mountain dulcimer.

GROSS: Do you think that there's any classical composers that we treat a little too sanctimoniously?

SCHICKELE: Yes. I think - my feeling about that is that a lot of people don't realize that the people who wrote that music weren't as stuffy as the atmosphere of concert halls suggests that they were. But I do feel that the atmosphere surrounding music in the 18th century was probably closer to the atmosphere that we're familiar with now in terms of, let's say, a jazz group or something that is very serious in preparing its music, but often more light-hearted in his presentation.

For instance, one of the things that annoys me is that because of my reputation, I can't give a light title to a serious piece because if I do, everybody's going to be looking for something specifically funny. Whereas in jazz, you very often get flippant titles for pieces that are just straightforward jazz pieces. You get a piece called "Bike Up The Strand" or something like that. It's just a piece. It's not a joke piece.

I can't believe - if you look at the programs of those concerts in Beethoven's day, they must have gone on for three or four hours sometimes. When you read that the Handel organ concertos were written to be played between the acts of the oratorios, I can't believe that the audience just sat there the way we sit at a concert now. I'm sure there was a lot of noise. You read in the 19th century that some of the great chess matches were played at the opera in a box, you know? So I think the attitude was very different. And I don't even say that's the way it ought to be. I like getting myself completely engrossed in a piece. I don't like audiences that make noise.

But I think you pay a price, you know? We have this thing now that you shouldn't applaud after movements. In the 19th century, if the audience liked the movement, they applauded sometimes to the point where they had to play the movement over again. Now, you can say that that destroys the architecture of the symphony, but it's also something that comes out of a tremendous, spontaneous enthusiasm. Mozart wrote home when he did the "Paris Symphony," the last movement of which starts not with a big tutti, a big, loud thing right away that everybody usually expects in a symphony. But it starts with just the first and second violins scurrying around. And then finally, 10 seconds into it, or whatever it is, the whole orchestra comes blazing in. Apparently, the audience was delighted and burst into applause right then, when the orchestra came in. And Mozart wrote that home proudly 'cause he'd obviously got him, you know? He had delighted them. And I think the price we pay for the very serious approach - and as I say, I'm of two minds about it 'cause I like not being distracted - but the price we pay is a lack of spontaneity.

GROSS: Well, speaking of serious approaches, when you make your entrance in your concerts, you've entered in some most unusual ways. Do you want to describe some of the entrances you've made?

SCHICKELE: Well, now these, of course, are in P.D.Q. Bach concerts. The professor does have a habit of not being able to find the stage door of auditoriums, and so I've been known to end up in the balcony, and the only way I can get down quickly to the orchestra floor is by shimmying down a rope from the balcony to the aisle or swinging in from the front of the balcony like Tarzan. It's true that this has happened. But I think that to do that in a concert of Peter Schickele music would be to raise false expectations. So I try to find the right door in that case.

BIANCULLI: Peter Schickele speaking to Terry Gross in 1985 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1985 interview with Peter Schickele, a serious composer with a less-serious side, which he let loose in the guise of his musical alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele died last week at age 88.

GROSS: I don't know if this has ever happened, but have you ever been at a concert where the musicians were laughing in the middle of it and, you know, just ruining the concert by laughing along with the joke instead of being straight-faced?

SCHICKELE: Well, actually, I don't ask them to be straight-faced anymore. When I first started appearing with symphony orchestras, I did, and I found that it sort of puts a wet blanket on it. When I'm appearing with my own group, The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach, we are very serious. But I found with a symphony orchestra, the atmosphere is better if I don't do that. And, in fact, I've gone a little bit - I've gone the other direction in that I don't even do everything at the rehearsal. I save some stuff for the performance to be a surprise for the orchestra as well as the audience. It's a very empirical decision and what works, you know?

You see; it's one thing - when you're working with your own group - people that you've hired, auditioned, whatever; you put together The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach Group, for instance - there you can work with them. You work out the routine. Everything is quite theatrically worked out. In the case of my appearances with a symphony orchestra, I almost never have more than two rehearsals with them, sometimes only one. I don't know these people. Some of these people might be good comedians. Some of them might not. Sometimes they're better comedians than they think they are. I have to sort of discourage participation on their part. But what I have found is that if I tell people not to laugh, it isn't as good a concert as if I tell them, don't worry about it.

So - and one of the things I found, actually, is that in cities where the symphony matters, where the - where people really care about their orchestra, usually members of the audience - I don't mean people on the board, either; I just mean people who go regularly - they really get to know the orchestra. They have people they particularly like to watch. They maybe know the people, maybe not, but they know them from watching them, and they love seeing them having a good time. I've had so many, had - so many times had people in the audience say, well, it's so wonderful to see that first cellist crack up. He's always so serious, you know? And so I think that that's a sort of a - that's something that's worth having, you know?

GROSS: When you first started performing before you were famous, did musicians think twice about playing with you because they thought that they'd be taken as comedians instead of serious musicians and it might have a negative impact on their careers?

SCHICKELE: Well, there was a certain amount of that. I think the very first humorous concert wasn't even called P.D.Q. Bach at Juilliard when I was a student there in 1959. And Jorge Mester and I and some other people put together a teeny little orchestra. Well, he put the orchestra together. But, I mean, it was probably two first violins and two seconds and a viola and a cello and a bass and a few winds. And the quodlibet was written for that concert literally overnight, with friends, including Phil Glass, sitting beside me, taking parts and copying parts as I finished the score. And when it came in, the quodlibet to the place where Beethoven's "Seventh Symphony" is combined with "Tea For Two," at the first and only rehearsal, one of the violinists got up and walked out and never came back. There's nothing we could do about it. And it wasn't as if anybody's being paid or if it was a school function or something like that. She didn't want to play, she didn't have to. And so she got up and walked out and never came back.

But I think one of the things that was nice is that - the fact that I did the concerts for six years at Juilliard and at Aspen meant that by the time I did the first public concert in '65, it already had an underground reputation among musicians as something fun to do. So right from the very beginning in New York, and this has remained true, I've worked with the very best freelance musicians. And the P.D.Q. Bach pieces reflect that. Some of them are quite difficult. People are often surprised if they attend a rehearsal at how hard we work on just getting the music right 'cause one of the things I learned from Spike Jones is the better play it is, the funnier it is. You know, you don't - it's not goofing off.

And so the high trumpet parts, for instance, are - it takes the really good high trumpet players to play them, you know? And it's because I've always had the top musicians. And one of the nice things about having done it as long as I have is that I've played with most of the orchestras in the country and most of the major symphonies and many community and college orchestras, and so they know that I'm not out to make a fool of them. And I'm very careful in my rehearsals to be very respectful of them because my attitude is that they are not hired to be comedians. They're hired to play the music.

GROSS: Did anyone ever say to you that you were ruining your own career and your own chances as a serious musician by focusing so much on the musical satire that you do?

SCHICKELE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there are people who are fans of my serious music that decades - years ago, you know, wished that I had given up P.D.Q. Bach. I think the one thing I would do differently if I had to do it all over again - the trouble is I love that whole theatrical part of me. I said, you know, when I was 11, if you'd ask me what I was going to be when I grow up, I would have said an actor or a playwright or something like that. That whole side of me, of course, is very satisfied by the very theatrical nature of P.D.Q. Bach concerts.

The one thing I would do differently, I think, would be to use a funny, phony name for the professor, not as a secret but just as a signpost - I mean, not trying to keep my identity a secret but just so that Peter Schickele could be used for the the so-called serious music and the Professor Hossenfesser or whatever it's going to be would be used for P.D.Q. Bach because it is upsetting at a concert that has a serious peace of mind if a bunch of people, as sometimes has happened, come in just determined to find something to laugh at.

Very often, people don't know that I do anything serious, which isn't surprising, but sometimes when they find out that I do, they're not only surprised, but even disappointed. It's sort of like, oh, here's another clown who wants to play Hamlet, you know? And I have no desire to shove my serious music down people's throats. One of the reasons that I work hard on trying to get as much of it recorded as possible is it tends that way to get out to people who are interested in it. I get very nice feedback from people who've heard it on classical music stations. And - but I couldn't put a serious piece on a P.D.Q. Bach concert 'cause everybody would be waiting for something funny to happen.

BIANCULLI: Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. Schickele died last week at age 88. After a break, we remember Mary Weiss, the lead singer of The Shangri-Las, the girl group best known for the song "Leader Of The Pack." And I'll review the new Apple TV+ miniseries about World War II pilots, "Masters Of The Air." Here's one more sample from a P.D.Q. Bach piece, the unforgettable ending to his oratorio called "The Seasonings," with the chorus singing, to curry favor, favor curry. The finale includes an instrument rarely heard in concert, the airhorn. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) To curry favor, favor curry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.