Yesterday, I interviewed, by phone, Peter Schickele, creator of the unfortunately immortal P.D.Q. Bach, about his scheduled appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 24. (He’ll perform “New Horizons in Music Appreciation,” his play-by-play analysis of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with sportscaster Merrill Reese, the Voice of the Eagles, as his color man.) Much of what we talked about will find no place in the article I still have to write, and I’d like to throw some of it down here, as chips from the workshop.
I asked Schickele what drives a serious musician to comedy (thanks to Renee for the suggestion), and he said that in his case, it was the other way around. He was funny as a kid, and he began studying music seriously only in his teens, when he picked up his mother’s old clarinet.
“My mother once told me I was entertaining people since I was a year and a half old,” he said. “That came first with me. What happened during my teenage years was I got more and more interested in music for its own sake. All my life I’ve done both the serious and the funny things.”
His catalog of so-called serious works is larger than his P.D.Q. Bach catalog, he said, and the latter contains more than a hundred pieces.
It seems perfectly in character that Schickele’s earliest musical hero would be Spike Jones, and when he was 13, he formed his own band, called Jerky Jems and his Balmy Brothers, which was a direct imitation of Jones and his City Slickers. The band consisted of two clarinets, a violin (played by Schickele’s brother), and tom-toms.
“I still have the first piece I ever wrote, which for some reason is called ‘The Sheik of Kalamazoo,’” Schickele said. “It sounds vaguely exotic. When I wrote it, I was not only writing an original piece of music, but I was also learning how to write music down.”
At the time Schickele began playing clarinet, his family was living near Fargo, North Dakota, in the sprawling if underpopulated metropolitan area known as Fargo-Moorhead. (Moorhead is over the state line in Minnesota.) When he eventually went for lessons, his teacher told him that he had developed so many bad habits that he should start over with another instrument. The teacher recommended the bassoon. Schickele took the suggestion, but he suspected an ulterior motive: there were no bassoonists in Fargo-Moorhead, and the local orchestra needed one. Schickele, along with another boy who had been talked into lessons, became the bassoon section.
“I never harbored any illusions of wanting to be a professional bassoonist,” he said. “The great thing about being a bassoonist is that that are needed. There’s always a shortage of bassoonists, whereas clarinetists are a dime a dozen.”
Of all the pieces he has written as P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele said, he holds a special place in his affections for P.D.Q.’s only full-length opera, The Abduction of Figaro.
“My own favorite P.D.Q. Bach pieces are sort of love letters to the composers they sound like,” he said. “That one is definitely a love letter to the big five operas of Mozart.”
For the record, my own favorite Schickele gag may be found at the beginning of The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach. It’s a reproduction of the manuscript of a song that consists of the words “front is” repeated over and over. The name of the song, of course, is “Front Is Piece,” a fragment from the Songs Without Points.