We have Professor Peter Schickele to thank for introducing the world to PDQ Bach, the '21st of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20 children.' Schickele has created an entire back-story around the 'forgotten son' of the Bach family, noting how amazing it is that PDQ produced any music at all, since he was lazy, and rarely sober.
"He did have a drinking problem," Schickele explained, then corrected himself. "Actually, it wasn't a problem because it didn't bother him. He just drank." As for PDQ's creative technique, "A lot of composers compose at the piano. Some composers compose away from the piano. He composed under the piano. And he was often at floor level."
PDQ Bach is, of course, the creation of Peter Schickele, who is himself a composer...and not a professor. Out of this persona came more than 100 compositions, 20 recordings and countless concerts, all poking fun at classical music. Schickele and his friends performed PDQ Bach's first concert at The Town Hall in New York City in 1965.
Continuing a comedic musical tradition
Schickele's inspiration for comedy came from his love for Spike Jones, the musician who added funny sound effects to popular songs in the 1940s. "He had a comedy band, he did take-offs on mostly pop songs of the day, but also on some classical stuff like Carmen and the Nutcracker Suite. And he had all sorts of weird instruments in his orchestra…like gun shots and sirens and things."
As a teenager, Schickele, his brother and a friend put together a band with traditional instruments used in untraditional arrangements.
"We had recorded the first movement of the second Brandenburg concerto of Bach with my brother playing the high string parts on violin and viola, and Ernie playing the low string parts on cello and me playing the wind parts on bassoon, two octaves lower which gives a nice muddy sound." He remembers they had a lot of fun doing that. "We thought let’s do that again next week. We’d been listening to the "Coffee Cantata"—one of Bach's few humorous works and I came up with the "Sanka Cantata" which we recorded. And we made it in the form of a radio broadcast, so when we did that, we had to have a composer."
Hence, PDQ Bach was born.
One of his most popular pieces is a performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, with play-by-play commentary as if it was a sporting event. As the orchestra strikes up the familiar four note theme - da da da daaah - the sportscaster announces, "And they're off! With a four note theme... it's very exciting, the beginning of a symphony is always exciting." Later, when a horn player deliberately misses a note and is sent to the penalty chair for 30 bars, the commentator observes, "That was Bobby Kornoh, in the first chair, and that's the third major flub he's made this season." The audience loves it.
Room for comedy and serious art
Schickele is the composer behind all of PDQ Bach's works. He is also a respected composer of 'serious' music as well, including symphonies, string quartets, choral works and more.
"During my teenage years I got more and more interested in writing music just for writing music and not just for comedy," he explained. "By the time I went to college I knew I wanted to be a composer. And I’ve done both the comedy and the serious ever since."
Schickele feels there is room for both serious and funny music in the classical world. "I think a world without humor would be a sad one indeed. But in terms of sort of intellectual activity, as I say, being exposed to PDQ Bach exposes you to a lot of truths about Baroque music and music in general. So I think that’s probably what's important."
In December, Schickele and friends celebrated the 50th anniversary of that very first PDQ Bach concert, with two return performances at The Town Hall in New York City.