P.D.Q. Bach: The Forgotten Composer

by Eli Pollock

As we have been discussing J.S. Bach in class, I was reminded of a lesser-known Bach.  P.D.Q. Bach was the son of J.S. Bach, and his works, lost for years, were discovered in recent decades by composer and musicologist Peter Schickele.  From some biographical notes on Schickele’s about P.D.Q. Bach:

“P.D.Q. Bach once said that his illustrious father gave him no training in music whatsoever, and it is one of the few things he said that we can believe without reservation.  His rebelliousness was such, in fact, that he avoided music as much as possible until he was well into his thirties (as a teenager he did assist in the construction of the loudest instrument ever created, the pandemonium, but he wisely skipped town before the instrument’s completion, having sensed with uncanny accuracy, that the Pavilion of Glass was perhaps not the most felicitous location for the inaugural concert).  But by the mid 1770s he realized that, given his last name, writing music was the easiest thing he could do, and he began composing the works that were to catapult him into obscurity.”

Of course, there was no P.D.Q. Bach.  Schickele invented this fictional character as an alter ego, under which he has written numerous musical parodies of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music.  The name itself is poking fun at the numerous Bach’s in history that were well-known composers.  Schickele frequently takes a well-known theme and adds bits of other music from vastly different styles to create musical comedy.  For example, below is Eine Kleine Nichtmusik, which translates to “A Little Not-Music” and is a parody of Mozart’s famous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  The piece contains Mozart’s famous theme interspersed with excerpts from an array of popular pieces, many of which should be familiar to listeners.  Everything from “the Mexican hat dance” to The Nutcracker can be heard at some point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enT9oAE0TxM

One other example is the Schleptet in E Flat Major, a hilarious romp through the possibilities of musical humor.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5EkbTPPuSo

The reason that Schikele’s works are so funny is that they take everything we know about Western music and turn it on its head.  The first song I posted juxtaposes so many musical styles that we would not normally expect to hear, and in that incongruity we find humor.  It is best listened to with a strong musical background, as listeners can then discern all of the various styles and tunes it contains.  The Schleptet is funny because of its unique use of instruments, whose parts are put together in a playful way.

The true genius of Peter Schikele’s humor is that it does more than make us laugh.  In clashing music from completely different eras together, it makes us think about the elements of those styles.  In order to laugh at a jazzy version of a fugue, one must know the musical elements of jazz as well as those of a fugue.

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