Schickele, Peter

views updated May 29 2018

Peter Schickele

Composer, conductor, pianist, musical humorist

For the Record

Selected discography


In New York City in 1965 composer-musician Peter Schickele introduced the general public to his satiric creation, baroque composer P.D.Q. Bach. Billing himself as Professor Schickele, head of the department of Musical Pathology at the fictional University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, the entertainer recounted his discovery of this last but least of Johann Sebastian Bachs twenty-odd children (earlier known only from police records and tavern lOUs) while taking a tour of a castle in Bavaria.

He opened the program with P.D.Q. Bachs Concerto for Horn and Hardart, a fifteen-minute spoof of eighteenth-century musical style and form played on a homemade hardartan assemblage of toy instruments, household items, exploding balloons, and coin operated windows dispensing sandwiches and pastries. Following with other long-lost P.D.Q. Bach compositions, the professor vowed to continue the search for new pieces (the lastest score cant possibly be as bad as the one before)a pledge served faithfully for the next twenty-five yearsmuch to the delight of his always sold-out audiences.

His slapstick, pratfall sort of humor is often so terribly self-indulgent, outrageously sophomoric, and inexcusably bad that we find ourselves laughing not so much at the jokes themselves as at his nerve in trying to pull them off, wrote Lawrence Widdoes, assessing Schickeles enduring appeal in High Fidelity. Thus, the hiss and the boo have become accepted responses at the concerts, ultimately eliciting a deliciously crummy comeback from Schickele. Admiring the entertainers ability to walk the fine line between humor and excess, UCLA musicologist Robert Winter told Alan Rich in Smithsonian: It isnt only that {Schickele is] exposing sacred cows. Hes spoofing things that most people dont even know, and yet he makes them feel like insiders.

Schickeles early interest in music was coupled with a flair for the dramatic; he first dreamed of becoming an actor, and he and brother David ran a theatre in their basement, performing movie serials and westerns. At age 10 Peter heard a recording of musical humorist Spike Jones, and was smitten by the King of Corns use of outrageous instruments and sound effectslike car horns and goat bleatsto burlesque popular songs. A bassoonist with the local symphony orchestra while in high school, Schickele later made his mark as a serious composer at the Juilliard School, but still felt the pull between classical and popular music, his attraction to Elvis and Ray Charles as strong as his devotion to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Studying classical composition with the distinguished Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma at Juilliard,

For the Record

Born July 17, 1935, in Ames, Iowa; raised in Ames, Washington, D.C., and Fargo, N.D.; son of Rainer Wolfgang (an agricultural economist) and Elizabeth (Wilcox) Schickele; married Susan Sindell (a childrens dance teacher), October 27, 1962; children: Karla, Matthew. Education: Studied music theory with conductor Sigvald Thompson; studied with composer Roy Harris, 1954; Swarthmore College, B.A., 1957; studied at Aspen Music School, 1959; Juilliard School, M.S., 1960, studied composition with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma.

Composer of classical music, mid-1950s; created P.D.Q. Bach persona, 1953, P.D.Q. Bach music first performed at Juilliard concert, 1959; co-founded Composers Circle at Juilliard; composer-in-residence in Los Angeles public school system, 1960-61; teacher at Swarthmore College, 1961-62; teacher of extension courses at Juilliard, 1961-65; first P.D.Q. Bach commercial concert at Town Hall in New York City, 1965, P.D.Q. Bach recordings, 1965; composer of film scores, mid-1960s; performed and recorded with chamber-rock-jazz trio Open Window, 1967-71; composer and arranger for pop and folk vocalists, later 1960s. Yearly nationwide P.D.Q. Bach concerts performed with local symphony orchestras or with Schickeles own New York Pick-Up Ensemble. Has performed frequently on television. Member of tAmerican Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, American Federation of Musicians, Association for Classical Music, and American Music Center.

Awards: Gershwin Memorial Award, 1959; Ford Foundation grant, 1960-61; Elizabeth Tow Newman Contemporary Music Award, 1964; honorary doctorate, Swarthmore College, 1980; Grammy Award for best comedy recording, 1989, for P.D.Q. Bach: 1712 Overture and Other Musical Assaults, and 1990, for P.D.Q. Bach: Oedipus Tex.

Addresses: Officec/o William Crawford, 237 East 72nd St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

Schickele earned a masters degree in 1960, returning there to teach. Yet, in an interview with New York Times writer Allan Kozinn, Schickele admitted that he spent much of his time composing, arriving for classes unprepared. Worse still, the teacher found himself chafing at the institutions restrictive attitude towards quality music; his Serenade for Piano incorporating rock and roll in the final movementwas deemed unsuitable concert material when performed at Juilliard in 1961. Feeling that his serious music owed as much to jazz, folk, and rock as it did to traditional classical music, Schickele hatched in P.D.Q. Bach a good-humored way to challenge such musical myopia.

While an undergraduate student in 1953, Schickelealong with his brother and a musician friendplayfully overdubbed one of Bachs Brandenburg Concertos with a pair of tape recorders, making it sound like mud wrestling. Further foolery yielded Schickeles Sanka Cantata (a take-off of Bachs Coffee Cantata) and the first of forgotten composer P.D.Q. Bachs dubious masterworks. When asked to extend a Juilliard concert program six years later, Schickele obliged with Concerto for Horn and Hardart; thenceforth new P.D.Q. Bach pieces surfaced at annual concerts at the Aspen Music School in Colorado.

By April 1965 there was enough P.D.Q. material for a full-scale concert at New Yorks Town Hallthe Vanguard recording of it was as wildly successful as the live performance itself. Schickele told Christian Science Monitor reporter Jo Ann Levine that he chose to lampoon music from the era of Bach and Mozart both because he loved it, and because eighteenth century music has a well-defined style, so you can depart from it.

Correspondingly, Widdoes noted that because baroque music represents the epitome of periwigged musical dignity and sophistication Schickeles satires are all the more striking; while acknowledging the professors kinship to contemporary musical humorists Anna Russell and Victor Borge, the High Fidelity critic felt that Schickele lacked their cosmopolitan polish, using instead unmistakably American, Spike Jonesian humor devices: slipshod cadences, embarrassing country and western melodic fragments, blue notes, unexpected dissonant clusters, outdated scat phrases, Guy Lombardo endings, and ridiculous-sounding homemade instruments.

Thus, P.D.Q. Bachs Pervertimento requires bagpipes, a bicycle, and balloons, and Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra culminates with an exploding piano bench; other Schickele/P.D.Q. irreverences include Fanfare for the Common Cold, the opera Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, the dramatic oratorio Oedipus Tex, the Unbegun Symphony, and The O.K. Chorale. Taking his musical spoof one step further, the professor published the mock-scholarly Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach in 1976, complete with tongue-in-cheek bibliography, glossary, and discography.

While cultivating thousands of fans with his musical wit, Schickele has also drawn praise for the consummate skill underlying his musical burlesques; in High Fidelity Michael Anthony felt that the entertainers musical gags work so well only because of Schickeles deep understanding of the eighteenth-century musical idiom. Former Juilliard student and minimalist composer Philip Glass admitted in Smithsonian that Peter was, in all my class, the most gifted. He could write synthetic Copeland, synthetic Stravinsky, and for that matter, synthetic Bach and Mozart. He inspired us simply because he made music seem easy. He had no fear of the terrors of composition; he took the anxiety out of making music.

The creator of much non-P.D.Q. Bach music, Schickele has scored for film and television, and written songs for musicals and popular recording artists. From 1967 to 1971 he introduced a number of serious works while a member of the chamber-rock-jazz trio Open Window; later Schickele compositions include Pentangle: Five Songs for Horn and Orchestra, String Quartet No. 1: American Dreams, and Spring Serenade, for Flute and Piano. Reviewing the last of these for the American Record Guide, David W. Moore observed that the composers fondness for effective simplicity combines with a sensitive feeling for harmony and mood; other critics have found in Schickeles serious works a mirror of the man himself: direct, individual, expert, and relaxed.

Selected discography

Diversions for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon, GC.

Windows, for Clarinet and Guitar, Protone.

Fantastic Garden: Three Views From the Open Window, Louisville Symphony/Vanguard, 1968.

The Open Window, Vanguard, 1969.

The Lowest Trees Have Tops, Grenadilla.

Pentangle: Five Songs for Horn and Orchestra, Louisville Symphony.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle: Songs: Aegies; Summer Trio, Vanguard.

Bestiary: Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano.

Spring Serenade, for Flute and Piano, CRI.

String Quartet No 1: American Dreams, RCA.

P.D.Q. Bach albums; on Vanguard

An Evening with P.D.Q. Bach, 1965.

An Hysteric Return.

P.D.Q. Bach on the Air.

Addicted to P.D.Q. Bach and Professor Peter Schickele.

The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach.

Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach.

Black Forest Bluegrass.

The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach, 1981.

Liebeslieder Polkas: Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs.

Music You Cant Get Out of Your Head.

A Little Nightmare Music.

1712 Overture and Other Musical Assaults.

P.D.Q. Bach: Oedipus Rex and Other Choral Calamities.

P.D.Q. Bach Videos

The Abduction of Figaro (three-act opera).


In addition to numerous satiric pieces and serious compositions for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments, and voice, Shickele has scored television and nontheatrical films and the motion picture Silent Running, 1972; created music and lyrics for stage productions, including Oh!Calcuttal; and provided songs and musical arrangements for recording artists, including Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie.


The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742)?, Random House, 1976.


American Record Guide, Fall 1987.

Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 1976.

High Fidelity, April 1980; August 1984.

National Review, October 29, 1976.

New York Times, December 25, 1977.

Smithsonian, February 1990.

Nancy Pear

Schickele, Peter

views updated Jun 08 2018

Schickele, Peter

Schickele, Peter, American composer and musical humorist; b. Ames, Iowa, July 17, 1935. He was educated at Swarthmore Coll. (B.A., 1957) and studied composition with Harris in Pittsburgh (1954), Milhaud at the Aspen (Colo.) School of Music (1959), and Persichetti and Bergsma at the Juilliard School of Music in N.Y. (M.S., 1960). After serving as composer-in-residence to the Los Angeles public schools (1960–61), he taught at Swarthmore Coll. (1961–62) and at the Juilliard School of Music (from 1962). He rocketed to fame at N.Y.’s Town Hall on April 24, 1965, in the rollicking role of the roly-poly character P.D.Q. Bach, the mythical composer of such outrageous travesties as The Civilian Barber, Gross Concerto for Divers Flutes (featuring a Nose Flute and a Wiener Whistle to be eaten during the perf.), Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra, Iphigenia in Brooklyn, The Seasonings, Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycles & Balloons, No-No Nonette, Schleptet, Fuga Meshuga, Missa Hilarious, Sanka Cantata, Fantasie-Shtick, and the opera The Abduction of Figaro (Minneapolis, April 24, 1984). He pubi. The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach (1807–1742?) (N.Y., 1976). In 1967 he organized a chamber-rock-jazz trio known as Open Window, which frequently presented his serious compositions; among these are several orch. works, vocal pieces, film and television scores, and chamber music. In later years, he was host of his own radio program, “Schickele Mix.”.

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Schickele, Peter

views updated May 18 2018

Schickele, Peter (b Ames, Iowa, 1935). Amer. composer. Taught at Juilliard Sch. Wrote film scores, songs for Joan Baez, and formed chamber-rock group, 1967–70. Works incl. The Civilian Barber, orch. (1953); A Zoo Called Earth (1970); The Birth of Christ, ch. (1960); Bestiary (1982); fl. conc. (1990); 3 str. qts.; 3 pf. sonatinas; 4 Rags (1972); str. trio (1960), etc. Has written series of humorous works under pseudonym ‘P. D. Q. Bach’, including operas The Stoned Guest and The Abduction of Figaro (1984).