Does humor belong in music?
April 27, 2005 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Forty years ago this week the public was introduced to the works of P.D.Q. Bach at a concert in New York's Town Hall. It's as good a time as any to look at the one-of-a-kind output of Peter Schickele. (A lot more inside)
posted by soyjoy (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some interesting Schickele tidbits: In addition to his substantial P.D.Q. Bach oeuvre, his concert appearances and his eclectic radio show, Schickele is now a moderately-respected composer (did you know he did the score to this 1972 cult flick? or that he was an arranger for Joan Baez and and Buffy Sainte-Marie?). Also: His Concerto for Horn & Hardart required the construction of a new eponymous musical instrument, most of which was completed by his friend and classmate, Philip Glass.

Here's a PDQ Bach clip (from the Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion) and a Schickele clip (from Last Tango at Bayreuth), some high-falutin' analysis (PDF) of his musical jokes and an olllld Mefi thread on satirical music.

I also find it interesting, now that mashups are all the rage, that Schickele "anticipated" this format with not only his Unbegun Symphony (RA Clip) and Quodlibet (an 18th-century musical form combining popular tunes, though not always on top of each other) but more generally with stuff like the superb Blaues Gras Cantata, where musical cliches from German baroque music and 20th-century bluegrass are combined so seamlessly that you sometimes forget which is which. (True, Charles Ives also "mashed up" pre-existing tunes, but in deliberately non-harmonious ways, contradicting the whole point of a mashup.) So I'm going to add the title "Godfather of Mashups" to Schickele's list of dubious accomplishments.

posted by soyjoy at 11:07 AM on April 27, 2005

Forty years already? Wow.

Can't wait to investigate all your links; thanks for the post!
posted by Specklet at 11:10 AM on April 27, 2005

"Breakfast Antiphonies"

LOL. Thanks for the reminder of this funny dude.
posted by HTuttle at 11:17 AM on April 27, 2005

About 38 years ago my grandmother took me to a P.D.Q. Bach concert. I remember his dramatic entrance: after a few minutes of the stage magager stepping on stage and, with increasing anxiety, looking at his watch, Peter Schickele slid down a rope from the balcony, ran down the aisle, and cataputed himself across the stage floor. The rest of the concert was pretty hilarious to me, as a teenage amateur classical musician.

As for my grandfather, who I remember mostly as sitting in an overstuffed chair across the room from a hi-fi console blasting Wagner, Granny explained his absence from the occasion by saying "I'm afraid your grandfather doesn't have much of a sense of humor about music."

I only have one of his CD's, but on it is one of his hilarious bits: a "sportscasting" of a movement from one of Beethoven's symphonies (You know, the one that goes: da-da-da-dum..."And they're off!")
posted by kozad at 11:19 AM on April 27, 2005

My favorite piece of P.D.Q. Bach, from his "masterpiece" Oedipus Tex:
Well howdy there, I'm Oedipus Tex,
You may have heard of my brother Rex
Yeah, I'm Oedipus Tex, that's what I said,
but my friends all call me Oed!
posted by grouse at 11:26 AM on April 27, 2005

I met Schickele several times while working the front desk of the hotel he used to stay in, in Saint Paul when he came for A Prairie Home Companion and other MPR appearances. Being a college radio-head at the time, I had no Idea who this guy was, but knew he was a class act: Genuine warmth, real gratitude, a decent chap all around. I used to greet him cheerfully by name as I did all our regular guests when he arrived, until it was pointed out to me that he was a minor celebrity and might not like his name belted across the lobby like that.
Anyway, I've been meaning ever since to get into his stuff 'cause I like classical, but it has yet to fall into my lap.
On preview, I find it amusing that the spellcheck suggests "Chickweed" and "Shockable" as substitutes for his name.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 11:27 AM on April 27, 2005

The Joan Baez Christmas album he arranged is the best Christmas album I've heard, thanks to his arrangements (sure, Ms. Baez has a fantastic voice, but the instrumental arrangements are perfect).

I'm glad you mentioned Charles Ives, composer of my other "perfect" piece of music, The Unanswered Question. Heard it? If not, do. If so, have you heard it as intended, with the orchestra in the other room? Perfect.
posted by breezeway at 11:27 AM on April 27, 2005

I just think he's the greatest, and I especially love the "Schickele Mix" radio program. I saw him about 20 years ago, and he swung in on a rope from one of the balconies, and it was definitely a fun show.

I think his greatest contribution, by far, is in music education. As a lover of classical music with very little innate musical capability, I find his radio show instructive and interesting without fail. Almost like a less highbrow version of those shows Bernstein did in the 60s--I really look forward to sharing them with my kids as they grow up.
posted by LairBob at 11:29 AM on April 27, 2005

How could one discuss this without mentioning this?
posted by zanpo at 11:32 AM on April 27, 2005

Well, I did put it in the page title, after all.
posted by soyjoy at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2005

A true musical genuis.

I always loved listening to Schickele Mix.

Thanks soyjoy.

Didn't he teach music at Julliard or some place?
posted by nofundy at 12:01 PM on April 27, 2005

Great, great post.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:06 PM on April 27, 2005

I saw him last year at Symphony Hall in Chicago. I especially enjoyed his "Howdy" symphony, if only because it requires the trombone player to dash into the hall at the end of the piece and play a long, loud glissando. It's my personal dream as a trombone player to do that some day. (Regardless of whether or not we're playing P.D.Q. Bach at the time.)

kozad: I believe you're referring to the "New Horizons in Music Appreciation" on this album. Man, that takes me back... My parents had a vinyl copy of that one, and I played it incessantly when I was about 12...
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:11 PM on April 27, 2005

The Abduction of Figaro is well worth a purchase or rental (I know greencine has it).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2005

I love P.D.Q. Bach, I have a few CDs... then again I like classical music and can appreciate a good geeky joke.
posted by clevershark at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2005

Do any of his records come without a laugh track? I quite like the music, but the laughing is distracting.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2005

His 1712 Overture album is hilarious -- but I can never hear the real 1812 Overture again without chuckling. He even parodies his Juilliard classmate Philip Glass, with the Prelude to "Einstein on the Fritz." (I once heard or read Glass talking about how, even when they were at Juilliard, Schickele could easily imitate the works of any composer.)

I'll have to go investigate the links later, but yeah, bravo Prof. Schickele.

stickycarpet: Yes, the studio recordings do not have laughter.
posted by pmurray63 at 12:28 PM on April 27, 2005

Yriekay! Yriekay! Yriekay leisonay!

Best song ever: Good King Kong. Good King Kong looked down at his feet and he saw that they were large...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:45 PM on April 27, 2005

His stuff is fantastic. I remember my old chorus would do a show where we would sing the classically legitimate Liebeslieder Waltzes and then follow up with the much more entertaining Liebeslieder Polkas.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 12:53 PM on April 27, 2005

I met Shickele when he was a guest on Chris O'Riley's show, I had dinner after with the crew (not to imply I was on the show, I wish, we just know each other through At Ease). Was IIRC the first time they'd met since Chris recorded The Short-Tempered Clavier so I sort of regret spoiling it now.

Anyway, yeah, he's very personable and has some very nice relatively serious music.
posted by abcde at 1:45 PM on April 27, 2005

My senior year, with my pushing the high school symphonic band played Music for an Aweful lot of Wind and Brass, with the purcussionist running across the stage and knocking over a whole bunch of instruments. It was delightful, I wished we had orchestral pieces. But I listen to the 1712 and Bach Portrait with glee. Everytime someone mentions the Lincoln Portrait I start giggling. Having gone to a Jekyll and Hyde concert, I really want to go to an orchestral concert of his.
Thanks for the wonderful post.
posted by thebestsophist at 2:00 PM on April 27, 2005

Hee. Someone gave me an LP of the Blaues Gras Cantata as a birthday present when I was, what junior high? There's something about the opening number with the orchestra and Shickele belting out "Blaues Gras" to the tune of "Blue Skies" that still cracks me up.
posted by RakDaddy at 2:20 PM on April 27, 2005

Thanks, I always loved Shickele Mix, and haven't heard it aired by any local stations. I meant to go look up some Internet streams, and this reminded me. I like his PDQ bach stuff as well, even the groanworthy puns. Kozad, I also like Wagner or "that bombastic asshole", in the immortal words of my sister in law.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:10 PM on April 27, 2005

Not a word about this? Ah, the sixties!

Myself, I'm still hoping this comes out on CD at some point, but I'm not holding my breath. Knight of the Burning Pestle is a lot of fun, and if you're in Woodstock this July, you might want to check it out

Good work, soyjoy
posted by IndigoJones at 5:35 PM on April 27, 2005

Saw him 20 years ago, when I was in college. You could tell who the classical musicians were - we were the ones who were gasping for air. And he wasn't doing the subtle stuff that really distroys me, like the duet where the bass is in 3/4 and the violin is in 4/4 (or is it the other way around? Damn, I have to look that up again...).

His stuff is incredibly difficult to play. I do regret never getting to play his piece for viola four hands.
posted by QIbHom at 2:02 PM on April 30, 2005

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