P. D. Q. Bach
Classical-music jokes that last
by James M. Manheim
P. D. Q. Bach, the unacknowledged last son of Johann Sebastian Bach, made his first appearance in 1965 in a concert by Peter Schickele who billed himself as a professor from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Think of how many kinds of comedy have fallen by the wayside since then! Even academic satire, of which the
P. D. Q. Bach routines contain a certain amount, tends to age quickly. But P. D. Q. Bach continues to go his merry way, with his motley collection of instruments at the ready, his dill piccolo and his shower hose among them, and people keep paying good money to hear them. Schickele has even tried to retire P. D. Q. Bach in order to promote his own light music, but the composer of the Fanfare for the Common Cold has been brought back by popular demand (and according to his website, because he needs the money).
What's the secret? Why hasn't this essentially one-joke routine gotten old? The answer is that Schickele has the whole history of classical music for his bag of tricks, his comic canvas. The heart of Schickele's act consists not of jokes about a fictional Bach offspring but of actual music music that parodies styles far beyond the Baroque era during which J. S. Bach and his sons lived. By now, the list of P. D. Q. Bach's "works" runs to thirteen pages, so you can see Schickele several times and not repeat the same material.
And the comic touches, like a solo dog in the Canine Cantata: Wachet Arf!, have for their context all the countless ways a classical composition can be put together. I don't know whether college music appreciation courses use Schickele's sportscast of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (New Horizons in Music Appreciation) as an instructional tool, but they should: its concept of a frenetic play-by-play evaluation of a performance of that symphony's first movement stays funny because the
symphony itself never grows old. Since Schickele is so familiar with the music he parodies, P. D. Q. Bach is funny even for people who are only vaguely familiar with classical music and its historical procession of styles. P. D. Q. Bach isn't an in-joke for musicologists; you laugh as you learn as you go.
Peter Schickele and P. D. Q. Bach join the Ann Arbor Symphony for a performance at the Summer Festival on Friday, June 27. On the program are the oratorio Oedipus Tex (aria titles: "Howdy there" and "You murdered your father"), as well as some excerpts from The Art of the Ground Round and some Schickele compositions under his own name.
[Originally published in June, 2003.]