(July 23, 2006)

P.D.Q. Bach: Classical with a Laugh Track

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Peter Schickele has always composed with a split personality, ever since - inspired by Spike Jones' comedy albums - he took pencil to paper and began to compose. "When I started writing music, when I was 13," he says, "I started making arrangements of folk songs, like `Down in the Valley,' for this little band, which consisted of two clarinets, violin - and tom-tom."

"When I look back on it now, right from the beginning I was doing both serious and funny stuff," says Schickele (pronounced SHICK-uh-lee).

Not every composer can compartmentalize his personalities as tidily as Schickele: For years, his wildest (and most popular) work has been penned under the name P.D.Q. Bach, "the last and least of the great Johann Sebastian Bach's 20-odd children."

Schickele is a satirist whose compositions let the air out of pompous classical music. On the musical continuum, Schickele is Victor Borge's large, American-born nephew, the cousin of those guys in Canadian Brass. Think of it as classical music with a laugh track.

P.D.Q. won four straight Grammy awards for best comedy album, from 1989 through 1992 - for "P.D.Q. Bach: 1712 Overture and Other Musical Assaults," "Oedipus Tex and Other Choral Calamities," "WTWP: Classical Talkity-Talk Radio," and "Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion."

But it was Schickele who picked up the awards and it is Schickele who returns to the Caramoor International Music Festival for its opening weekend.

Of course, P.D.Q. gets the billing for Sunday's 4:30 p.m. concert - "P.D.Q. Bach: His Life, Legacy and Leftovers."

Schickele still plays dozens of dates a year, including one in New York City each winter to unveil a new P.D.Q. "discovery."

His music is European with an American flair. It has the structure of high-minded classical music as interpreted by a man who came of age listening to Jones' "Der Fuehrer's Face."

Schickele - born Johann Peter Schickele, July 17, 1935, in Ames, Iowa - is classically trained and blazingly clever. He holds a music degree from Swarthmore and a master's in composition from Juilliard.

Schickele also has a place in Broadway history: In 1969, with Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden in the group The Open Window, Schickele composed the folk-rock music and lyrics for the ground-breaking musical "Oh, Calcutta!," Kenneth Tynan's musical about seeking happiness through sex.

Schickele has become a "Johann of all trades" - classical composer, musicologist, performer, one-time radio host and single-minded champion of P.D.Q. Bach.

While some may find it hard to discern where Schickele begins and P.D.Q. ends, it's not difficult for the composer.

"I can work on a Peter Schickele piece and a P.D.Q. Bach discovery at the same time without having any psychotic episodes," he says.

As anyone can attest who heard his "Schickele Mix" radio show - until recently, aired locally on WNYC - the maestro speaks with a gleam in his voice and enthusiasm to burn. Each hour-long "Mix" - there were 170 of them, recorded over three years - followed a musical theme, concept or technique, often with wacky results.

When the radio show's grants dried up seven years ago, the program went into re-runs, which Schickele still hears occasionally at his upstate home in Woodstock.

"I think it's impressive that it's still being run after all these years," he says.

While P.D.Q. may have opened doors, the composer's more serious side is getting its due.

"Now I'm in the very fortunate position of having as many commissions for Peter Schickele pieces as I can handle," he says.

Among them, a cello concerto for the Pasadena Symphony that was inspired by the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"My family lived in Washington, D.C., in 1945, so I was there on Pennsylvania Avenue when the funeral procession came by. The last movement took its inspiration from that experience."

It was a moment that stayed with him for 60 years.

"I must have been 9 years old and the thing I remember about it was, of course there were huge crowds, but it was the first time I'd ever seen grown-ups crying in public," he says. "That made a strong impression on me."

Sunday, Schickele comes back to Caramoor, joined by soprano Michèle Eaton and tenor David Düsing. Eaton happens to be Schickele's office assistant.

The first half of the concert will include major P.D.Q. Bach works, including the "Allegretto Gabinetto, for plumber and itinerant keyboarder."

"That's a piece that's not quite as gross as it sounds," says Schickele.

("Gabinetto" is Italian for "bathroom" or "john," he says.)

"It's written for plumbing parts, the parts from within the toilet," he explains. "You can actually make music with those if your mind is demented enough."

How does one discover that a ballcock can be musical?

"I discovered the manuscript and had to fulfill it, as it were," he says, ducking coyly behind P.D.Q. Bach.

The piece also calls for "an itinerant keyboarder," who, Schickele says, "has an unusually portable keyboard."

Also in the first half will be P.D.Q. Bach's "12 Quite Heavenly Songs" a big song cycle on the signs of the zodiac, for three voices and keyboard - piano and organ - "sometimes played simultaneously."

And there's "Swing Sweet Low Chariot," a Schickele composition.

The afternoon's final performance will be of Schickele's "Songs from Shakespeare," a composition that goes back to his Swarthmore years.

When Peter Schickele first encountered the works of Shakespeare some 50 years ago, he wondered: "What would it be like if you took famous Shakespeare speeches and set them to 1950s pop music?"

That's the difference between Schickele and other college students: Other college students would grit their teeth and gut it out; Schickele found the music in Shakespeare - even if it happened to be doo-wop.

Soon, he had Hamlet crooning "To be or not to be."

Hamlet as a crooner.

"These kind of have to be heard to be believed," Schickele says.