Sometimes you don’t realize how much a musician meant to you until they are gone. Sure, you are aware that you’ve been a fan, but you didn’t quite grasp how much influence their music had on you until you start listening to it to mark their passing. Tom Petty was like that for me. So was my reaction to the death of Peter Schickele last week.
Schickele, for those who are unfamiliar, was the brilliant satirist who for decades performed as an exaggerated alter-ego version of himself: a professor of music at the non-existent University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople who devoted his non-existent career to the study of a non-existent 18th-century composer, P.D.Q. Bach, whom he always introduced as “the last and least” of J.S. Bach’s many children. “Professor” Schickele seemed to recognize P.D.Q. Bach’s “works” were unfailingly bizarre, terrible, or blatantly plagiarized, but he insisted on foisting them on the public at every opportunity with a delightful mixture of derision, resignation, and reluctant admiration. It was a brilliant setup for skewering classical music, academia, and those who took either too seriously. Furthermore, Schickele had a knack for not just inserting wrong notes into a familiar theme—any fool can do that—but the perfect wrong note.
The music of P.D.Q. Bach seems like it was specifically designed with my family in mind. If there was one thing we loved almost as much as music, it was irreverence. For that reason we also loved and listened to Spike Jones and Weird Al, but those two were sending up music for the masses. Schickele was creating parodies for that small overlapping center of a Venn diagram with “Monty Python fans” on one side and “people who sat through a few too many rehearsals of The Messiah” on the other.
My parents were the type of die-hard fans who owned not just several P.D.Q. Bach albums on vinyl but Schickele’s (non-humorous) score for the 1972 cult sci-fi film Silent Running. They started off playing me Schickele’s sportscast-style color commentary for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 off the P.D.Q. Bach on the Air LP, and chuckled through the whole thing while I looked on in puzzlement—in exactly the same way that my daughter looked on when I insisted on playing it for her last night.
By the time I was a teenager, though, it was me playing the latest P.D.Q. Bach releases on our home’s sound system. Prior to this last Wednesday, it had been years since I’d popped in one of my P.D.Q. Bach CDs. (Yes, I still have CDs and a device to play them on.) But as I listened, I realized they held tiny little moments that had been playing in my head for years. With shocking regularity.
The following list of some of those moments is partly an appreciation, partly a primer for folks like my daughter who may grow to appreciate P.D.Q. Bach given some options for staring points, and partly as way for me to process the loss of a truly gifted musician and humorist.
1. The 21 (!) A-flat major chords in a row during the build-up to the finale of the 1712 Overture
Tchaikovsky had just 13, which is totally reasonable and not at all ridiculous.
2. My complete inability to listen to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without hearing a phantom piccolo descant of Turkey in the Straw or Dixie
Technically Eine Kleine Nichtmusik (literally “a little not-music’) is credited to Schickele himself and not P.D.Q. Bach. It has forever ruined Mozart’s most famous work for both my mother and me.
3. The kazoo fanfare on the “Christmas” “carol” Good King Kong Looked Out
Tangentially related story here: My mother directed our church’s high school choir when I was a teen, and every year on Christmas Eve we would sing this frantic Benjamin Britten carol, This Little Babe. Well, one year during rehearsal, inspired by this P.D.Q. Bach piece, she handed out kazoos to all of us and had try the Britten once with everybody humming trough their little hunks of plastic. Let me tell you: The glory of Lord was revealed.
4. “Water bearer, why don’t you take your water and shove it up …”
If, for some unfathomable reason, you are ever forced to listen to just one of the tunes from P.D.Q. Bach’s zodiac-inspired song cycle, I highly recommend you go with Aquarius.
5. The Lasso d’Amore
I’m not sure exactly how old I was when my parents took me to one of Schickele’s live performances in the (probably?) ’80s. I only remember a few snippets from the concert, but I’m fairly sure the program included P.D.Q. Bach’s “Erotica” Variations for Banned Instruments. And, folks, if you have never seen a grown man hurling a corrugated plastic tube around and around his head, faster and faster, just to get the pitch to increase a step or two, you have not truly experienced live music.
6. “Uh oh!”
Composing a rap song for orchestra sounds like a terrible idea, but don’t worry: The album cover literally has a cringe warning label. The first six minutes features Schickele dropping some moderately clever rhymes about how it’s hard out here for an upper middle class New Yorker, but the breakdown at 6:25—with the musicians producing a loose approximation of a looping sample—is the shiznit, as absolutely no one says anymore.
7. “Frau Braun, can you tell your little boy not to play with the wall plug? … “
A supposed field recording of a pianissimo work performed on the instrument on which P.D.Q. Bach composed the piece, the Traumari for Unaccompanied Piano is more skit than song. The piano is, of course, located in a German family’s home, and the recording is continually interrupted by vaccuming, shouting, and one curious Jungchen.
8. J.S. Bach’s endless griping about his salary in Bach Portrait
“… Instead I have been paid not more than 16 Groschen 10 Pfennig every quarter, instead of the 20 Groschen 6 Pfennig stated in the rector’s accounts, and at the three high feast days, as well as at the Feast of the Reformation, each time not more than 1 Thaler, instead of 2 Thaler 12 Groschen, making a total of only 6 Thaler 18 Groschen instead of 13 Thaler 12 Groschen annually!” This charming little quote comes to us from a parody of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, but instead of inspiring bits of oratory by America’s greatest president, we get a bitter composer going on and on and on about various denominations of Saxon currency. I can only assume this is a real quote from J.S. Bach’s actual correspondence. The earlier quote of him complaining about how improving public health always hobbles his income (because there are fewer funerals) is apparently real.
9. “… und grüner Himmel … “
P.D.Q. Bach’s Blaues Gras oratorio features banjo and such simple German text that even a blogger in his mid-40s who has forgotten nearly everything he learned in high school can still do a translation for you. The opening aria, in English, reads: “Blue grass and green sky. Tell me where the devil am I?!”
10. The “vwom vwom vwom vwom vwom” at the end of the Credo from the Missa Hilarious
To be fair, the entire Missa Hilarious, from start to finish, lives permanently in my head. It is my favorite P.D.Q. piece, the one I return to most often, and the one I still dream about being able to sing as a member of the chorus one day. But if I have to pick one moment, it’s the end of the Credo, right after the chorus and “bargain countertenor” conclude a long “ahhhhhhh” with “choo” instead of “men.” The orchestra plays what, on sheet music, would look like a pretty standard conclusion to an allegro movement from a sacred choral composition, except the final notes are exaggerated and obnoxious, especially in the low brass. As high school band students, this is the way we always wanted to conclude every piece, but we were never allowed. On this recording, here is Schickele conducting and encouraging—nay, demanding—it from the players. Wonderful stuff. Bravo.