Peter Schickele, classical music composer

Peter Schickele


Johann Peter Schickele (born July 17, 1935) is an American composer, musical educator and parodist. He is best known for his comedy music albums featuring his music that he presents as music written by the fictional composer P. D. Q. Bach.

Schickele was born in Ames, Iowa, to Alsatian immigrant parents, and brought up in Washington, D.C., and Fargo, North Dakota, where he studied composition with Sigvald Thompson. Graduating from Fargo Central High in 1952 and then graduating with a degree in music from Swarthmore College in 1957, he was the first student at Swarthmore and the only student in his class with such a degree. He graduated from the Juilliard School with an M.S. in musical composition; in the ensuing years he has frequently cited Roy Harris as the most influential of his teachers.

Schickele has composed more than 100 original works for symphony orchestra, choral groups, chamber ensemble, voice, film (e.g. Silent Running and animated adaptations of Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen), and television. He has also written music for school bands, as well as a number of folk musicians, most notably Joan Baez (for whom he also orchestrated and arranged three albums during the mid-1960s, Noël, Joan, and Baptism). He has also written a number of musicals, and has organized numerous concert performances as both musical director and performer. Schickele is active on the international and North American concert circuit.

Schickele's musical creations have won him multiple awards. His extensive body of work is marked by a distinctive style which integrates the European classical tradition with an unmistakable American idiom. As a musical educator he also hosted the classical music educational radio program Schickele Mix which was broadcast on many public radio stations in the United States. Lack of funding ended the production of new programs in the late 1990s, and rebroadcasts of the existing programs finally ceased in June 2007. Only 119 of the 169 programs were in the rebroadcast rotation, because earlier shows contained American Public Radio production IDs rather than ones crediting Public Radio International. In March 2006, some of the other "lost episodes" were added back to the rotation, with one notable program remnant of the Periodic Table of Musics, listing the names of musicians and composers as mythical element names in a format reminiscent of the Periodic table.

In recent years, Schickele has created the non-P.D.Q. Bach albums Hornsmoke, Sneaky Pete and the Wolf and The Emperor's New Clothes.

Schickele, an accomplished bassoonist, was also a member of the chamber rock trio Open Window, which wrote and performed music for the revue Oh! Calcutta!. Schickele's two children, Matt and Karla, have been members of various indie rock bands, including Beekeeper, Ida, K, and M Shanghai String Band. His brother was the film director and musician David Schickele (d. 1999).

Schickele's music is published by the Theodore Presser Company.

Besides composing music under his own name, Schickele has developed an elaborate parodic persona built around his studies of the fictional "youngest and the oddest of the twenty-odd children" of Johann Sebastian Bach, P.D.Q. Bach. His clever parodies of baroque and classical music, written under this particular Bach's name, have earned him four Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Performance/Album. Among the huge repertory still being uncovered by the diligent Schickele are such challenging works as The Abduction of Figaro, Canine Cantata: "Wachet Arf!" (S. K9), Good King Kong Looked Out, the Trite Quintet (S. 6 of 1), "O Little Town of Hackensack", A Little Nightmare Music, the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn, the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, and perhaps best known of all, the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the O.K. Chorale. Though P.D.Q. Bach is ostensibly a Baroque composer, Schickele extends his parodic repertoire to modern works such as "Einstein on the Fritz", a parody of his Juilliard classmate Philip Glass.

His fictitious "home establishment," where he reports having tenure as "Very Full Professor Peter Schickele" of "musicolology" and "musical pathology", is the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, a little-known institution which does not normally welcome out-of-state visitors. To illustrate the work of his uncovered composer, Schickele invented a range of rather unusual instruments. The most complicated of these is the Hardart, a variety of tone-generating devices mounted on the frame of an "automat", a coin-operated food dispenser. The automat is used in the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, a play on the name of proprietors Horn & Hardart, who pioneered the North American use of the Automat. Schickele also invented the "dill piccolo" for playing sour notes, the "left-handed sewer flute", the "tromboon", the "lasso d'amore", the double-reed slide music stand, the "tuba mirum", a flexible tube filled with wine, and the "pastaphone", an uncooked tube of manicotti pasta played as a horn. P.D.Q's 1965 Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons demonstrated the inherent musical qualities of everyday objects in ways not equally agreeable to all who listen to them.

To some degree, his music written as P.D.Q. Bach has overshadowed Schickele's work as a "serious" composer.

This aspect of Schickele's musical career came from his early interest in the music of Spike Jones, whose musical ensemble lampooned popular music in the 1940s and 1950s. While at Juilliard (1959) Schickele teamed with conductor Jorge Mester to present a humorous concert, which became an annual event at the college. In 1965 Schickele moved the concept to Town Hall and invited the public to attend. Vanguard Records released an album of that concert, and P. D. Q. Bach's career was launched.

Composer Title Date Action
Peter Schickele Serenade for Three 11/01/2009 Play Add to playlist