R.I.P., P. D. Q.

Cover art for The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach by the artist P.D.Q. Bach. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Vanguard, or the graphic artist(s). Fair Use.

On the opening page of the first English-language history of music (the first of its four volumes published in 1776), the author, Charles Burney cited, among other attributes of his subject, its capacity “to excite chearfulness [sic] and mirth.”

Yet Burney’s scholarly descendants have, over the intervening 250 years, paid little heed to either mirth or cheer. The discipline born of Burney’s pathfinding explorations has been an overwhelmingly humorless pursuit. As I embarked on a Ph.D. at Stanford in the smog-and-silicon-soaked twilight of the Reagan Years, the chair of the music department warned me that “musicology is a serious business.”  Wit and wackiness were not worthy objects of study, and certainly not capable of generating publishable material.  If something was fun—or worse, funny—it wasn’t scholarly.

Flipping to the last of the more than 2,000 pages of Burney’s seminal history, we find him in an uncharacteristically elegiac mood, apologizing for having “drawn from the tomb the names of so many obscure and barbarous authors.” He muses that “many of the specimens of melody and harmony” found in his great work must count as “reliques of barbarism, and indisputable vouchers that mankind was delighted with bad Music, before good had been heard.”  He concluded: “I have spoken of some musicians whose fame is now so much faded, that it is perhaps the last time they will ever be mentioned.”

Peter Schickele, who died last week at the age of eighty-eight, knew his Burney and knew how to rejoice in music’s “chearfulness and mirth.” No composer of “bad music” was more barbarous than the one that Schickele exhumed from the worm-rich compost of his imagination—his alter-ego, P. D. Q. Bach. This talentless churl was first presented to the public at Town Hall in New York City in April of 1965, though Schickele had developed the character in the 1950s with his brother David in a “Sanka Cantata”— a parody of J. S. Bach’s own satiric Coffee Cantata.

A live recording of that first Town Hall concert was issued by Vanguard later in 1965 as The eminent musicologist and composer Peter Schickele in a program of recently discovered work of P. D. Q. Bach (1807-1742?).  Many more LPs and laughs followed. The pretentious brandishing of academic credentials and appointments; the bragging that masqueraded as altruism when new discoveries were made; the professorial lungs filling proudly with the rank air of the archive: these and other comic gambits were cleverly judged shots at Bach scholarship then in the midst of dealing with tectonic shifts in the master’s biography and the dating of his works. The early music movement, which sought a return to the instruments and performance techniques of Bach and his predecessor, was also in full swing and a favorite target of Schickele’s baroque barbs. The kazoos heard in P. D. Q. Bach’s oratorio, “The Seasonings” were not authentic eighteenth-century century models, but had been wrapped, Professor Schickele assured us, in tissue paper verifiably from the period. The catalog number of the “The Seasonings” was S. ½ tsp (the letter standing for Schickele, not Schmieder, as in the actual J. S. Bach catalog). This was a spicey swipe at the incessant renumberings and de-listings Bach’s compositions that kept bland Ivory Tower musicologists busy.

P. D. Q. was the last and least of the twenty(-one including him) sons and daughters of Johann Sebastian. Schickele’s first name was also Johann, but like the great man, he went by his middle one. Some things were funnier left unsaid. But mostly not: it was the saying and singing and playing of those outlandish things that won Schickele four Grammys in a row between 1990 and 1993) and supported him in pursuing his “serious” compositions, an impressive and diverse catalog of more than a hundred works. These, too, weren’t always serious, just as Schickele’s overtly comic contributions proved that witty irreverence could be seriously rewarding—a rich and memorable mode of research, and a mad but effective method of disseminating and critiquing knowledge. To hear just how pedagogically potent many of Schickele’s gags were, one has only to listen to “New Horizons in Music Appreciation” and its hilarious, deft account of sonata form, that perennially soporific subject of so many music theory courses. The lessons and laughs were delivered by Schickele (and his sideman Robert Dennis) not as a lecture but as a play-by-play of history’s most famous symphony movement, Beethoven’s Fifth.

I first heard “Horizons” on the compilation double album of 1971, The Wurst of P. D. Q. Bach that one of my neighborhood pal’s parents had it in their collection. The cover showed a voraciously leering Schickele lurking in a butcher shop while fingering and blowing into a giant sausage as if it were a fat flute. The A side of The Wurst was taken straight from that first 1965 record and featured “The Concerto for Horn and Hardart” (the latter, a sandwich automat) and the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn.”  Not being a New Yorker and not even yet a teenager, most of the humor went whizzing by my ears ungotten. But the energy of the ideas, the vivacity of performances (in contrast to the deadpan comic stodginess of the speaking), the unbounded invention and goofiness of the music were utterly captivating. My friends and I listened to that album dozens of times.  That Schickele could reach pre-teens on an island in Puget Sound and, at the same time, knowing New Yorkers was a proof of his genius for uplifting the juvenile and the jaded.

That, four decades after discovering Schickele’s Notebook for Betty-Sue Bach, I would (shameless pitch coming) publish a book called, Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooksspeaks to the myriad ways his humor, thought and music-making (and music deconstructing) enlightened and delighted me and slyly informed my subsequent “scholarly” interests.  Sex was one persistent topic of Schickele’s humor, as in P. D. Q. Bach’s Erotica Variations for Banned Instruments and Piano.  Counterpoint was another. The Wurst included the Fugue in in C minor, (fuga vulgaris) for Calliope Four Hands (from the Toot Suite, S. 3.14, an irreverent unpacking of Bachian keyboard counterpoint. (Schickele collected kindred capers in his Short-Tempered Clavier.)

The solemnly antique, Volga-boatman theme of the fuga vulgaris is continually interrupted by rude clusters, as if a train were about to come crashing through the venerable genre. Yet this sonic marker serves the instructive purpose of making it obvious when and how the fugue subject is brought back, highlighting the contrapuntal overlappings and intricacies that eventually tie themselves into solipsistic knots at the end, the bagatelle doffing its comic cap at the close with a  puff of breathy discord. My interest in counterpoint was genially fostered by Schickele’s exercises in polyphonic wit. There was abundant sense in his nonsense.

Likewise, my fascination with the feet in musical performance was literally embodied in the second of the three Bs of P. D. Q.’s Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloon, a topic pursued in my (here’s yet another blatant product placement) Bach’s Feet. A few years after I discovered The Wurst I got my hands on a copy of The Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. Bach (1807-1742?) published in 1976. In it, Schickele makes many sly cracks about organists’ feet and pedaling.

The send-up up of phrenological pseudo-science and the nineteenth-century mania for the dug-up bones of dead geniuses is also made fun of in the Definitive Biography. With the aid of photos of P. D. Q.’s flat-topped cranium and the application of careful forensic techniques to the skull’s inner surfaces, the “scientific” conclusion was that the composer had suffered from a hangover that lasted well after his death. Along with my confrontation with Bachian counterpoint, my own skepticism of the “real” bones of J. S. Bach, exhumed in 1894, can be read about (final shameless pitch coming) in the last chapter of my first book, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint, which, like Schickele’s monograph (he might have called it a moan-a-gaff), includes historical photos of the skull. As so often the case, Schickele was there first.

Looking at that cover now, the name that Cambridge University Press gave to the musicological series in which it appears (“New perspectives in music history criticism) sounds more than a little ridiculous, what with Schickele’s “New Horizons” ringing in my ears.

Burney makes several appearances in the Definitive Biography, the indefatigable researcher and continental traveler of the eighteenth century having, Schickele informs us, received plans for the Pandemonium (“the loudest instrument ever created”) from its inventor Ludwig Zahnstocher, to whom P. D. Q. Bach had been apprenticed after his father’s death in 1750. Burney set off in 1788, the year before the publication of the final volume of his history, to go in search of that “unknown twig on the Bach family tree”—a slight joke making fun of biological metaphors in music history and archly questioning organicist paeans to J. S. Bach’s rootedness in German soil. Such dark myths of Germanic purity had long discolored the image of J. S. Bach’s life and works.

By 1788, we learn in the Definitive Biography, P. D. Q. was resident in Wein-am-Rhein, so soused that Burney couldn’t get a word, never mind a melody, out of him. One of the appendices (many are necessary in legitimate musicological books) reproduces Burney’s account, which finds P. D. Q. in the tavern with “five friends and about fifty steins … dipping a quill pen in a glass of wine and applying it to a sheet of music paper. He seemed to be an extremely short man, with indelicate features and a complexion which, were he to bathe in the Red Sea, would surely render him invisible.  The impression of shortness, it turned out, was due to the fact that he fallen off his chair and was hanging on the table by his chin.”  This is a silly smart parody of Burney’s own celebrated (and often very long) prose portraits, as of, for example, Handel (whom he did met): “somewhat corpulent and unwieldy of motion.”

Schickele is also puncturing Burney’s obsession with faces, and, in turn, Bach scholarship’s own fascination with images of the master and the disturbing reconstructions of his head. It is no coincidence that Schickele’s mug (dis)graces the cover of The Wurst and his other album jackets.

With its solipsistic musical analysis, pun-riddled texts and barmy footnotes, faux-fastidiousness, and pompous diction, the Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. Bach makes fun of arid musicological scholarship in general. Superficial surmises present themselves as deep thinking. The concentration on a composer at the “bottom of the heap,” as Schickele put it in the introduction to that first concert of 1965, punctured the Great Man view of music history in a few slowly spoken, but still sharp words.

Reflecting now on Johann Peter Schickele and his life and works, I call him and them great and good—and not just because he and they were funny, but because of that too.

R.I.P., P. D. Q. — Romp In Paradise!

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com