Peter Schickele is a composer and teacher – Juilliard-trained and teaches there – who has brightened six decades of classical music appreciation worldwide. He has done by inventing a composer – Johann Sebastian Bach’s extra son PDQ Bach, whose compositions Schickele keeps “discovering,” sometimes in response to commissions. His humor is on several levels, from slapstick to sophisticated parody, often all at one time. Often his work functions like an essay on the music he’s satirizing, showing you what’s mockable in the original. But you don’t need to be Juilliard-trained to appreciate the jokes, like the musical instruments he invents. (“The Tromboon combines the worst features the worst features of the trombone and the bassoon,” says Schickele, who is a first-rare bassoonist himself.)
I have been fortunate to have had several enjoyable encounters with Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach music, occasionally involving Schickele personally. In 1979, working for the Mutual Broadcasting System, I was assigned for a couple weeks to “produce” its main morning newscast, “The World This Morning.” Producing meant coming up with story ideas for features, doing the interviews, culling the sound bites, writing the stories, and giving them to the anchor, who wrote the hard news himself. After a few days of performing the job routinely it struck me that I could do a couple stories that interested me personally. So I set up a phone interview with Peter Schickele, touring the country with his comedic “PDQ Bach” concerts. He was in a hotel somewhere and had just gotten up. But he wasn’t too groggy to be funny.
“Some of your music is, um, pretty,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
The resulting piece was complicated, with anchor Fred Lowery, himself musical inclined (he played banjo) timing his script so fill in the quiet parts of the music, finishing before the loud bits. We actually rehearsed it, something we hardly ever did on any newscast. I conducted from the control room. It was fun. (For me. I think Fred, a really, really nice guy, was merely tolerating me, though he seemed pleased when it came off well.)
Years later, Marilyn and I regularly drove from D.C. down to Richmond, Va., where a friend in the violin section got us into rehearsals of the Richmond Symphony. Once they did a Schickele concert. I returned from dinner with Marilyn to discover that they had decided to have me read Schickele’s infamous off-stage announcements (“In the event of a water landing….”) but couldn’t find me so someone else was going to do it. What a missed opportunity!
Karma made up for it 30 years later when I was on the Big Island doing my concert on the history of classical music. The Waimea Philharmonic was doing an all-PDQ Bach concert the following night at the same theater, and they were going to do one of Schickele’s most famous routines, a baseball-style play-by-play call of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth (“It’s a beautiful night for a concert, there’s not a cloud in the ceiling!”) The guy who was going to do Schickele’s part got sick, and they asked me to do it. Yes! Put me in, coach! I can do this! I had owned the CD for years, and the LP before that, and knew it by heart.
What I didn’t know was that the recorded version was edited, removing some lines. One particularly good joke, but excised from the recording because it was visual, involved the play-by-play guy saying, “Well, there doesn’t seem to be much going on now, so let’s pause to give our stations a chance to identify themselves.” While a “local station I.D.” is given from off-stage, the musicians continue to “play” but without making any sound. Excellent gag. But I can’t read music, and there isn’t much going on at that point, as Schickele correctly noted. At the rehearsal I bungled it. I nailed it in the concert but honesty compels me to say I got lucky.
Schickele’s comedy includes narration that parodies learned lectures (he sometimes complains that his audiences don’t seem to take his PDQ Bach scholarship seriously), the strange instruments (a wind instrument attached to a bicycle, so that higher notes require pedaling faster), musical twists (a quote from a classical masterpiece suddenly becomes a popular tune) and other forms of the unexpected (a concerto that includes both a mandolin and a bagpipe). The 1712 Overture parodies the 1812 Overture, a brilliant analysis of Tchaikovsky if you’re not too busy laughing, but it also quotes the Beatles and Bach’s Toccata in D. The brilliant “Einstein on the Fritz” includes parodies of the styles of various Minimalists.
I am so pleased to present a two-hour “Howard’s Day Off” devoted entirely to the work of Peter Schickele, long may he wave.
“Howard’s Day Off” now airs live 5am-7am HST Saturdays, and 5pm-7pm HST Sundays, on KIPO Honolulu, KIPM Waikapu, KIPH Hana and KAHU Pahala and streams live on www.hawaiipublicradio.org .
You’re invited to join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook.