Humour and Classical Music: 15. Peter Schickele
by David Barker

Peter Schickele, who was born in 1935 and died earlier this year, was one of the stalwarts of humour in classical music. Indeed, if one uses the measure of record sales, he was probably the most successful, releasing numerous records that sold well, especially in the 1980’s and 90s. His style was primarily that of parody, imitating the great names of classical music, employing bizarre combinations of instruments to achieve the desired humorous effect. He frequently cited Spike Jones, a satirist and parodist of popular song, as his main inspiration.

He was classically trained. He graduated from Juilliard with a Masters in composition, having studied with Roy Harris and Vincent Persichetti, so when he set out to parody the greats, it was from a base of considerable knowledge and expertise.

His career outside humour including writing and arranging songs for Joan Baez, as well as more than a hundred classical works for orchestra, chamber ensembles (review) and voice, and film and television scores. It is, however, his humorous works that will be remembered. His first efforts at making classical music funny were when he was still at Juilliard, working with conductor Jorge Mester to create a concert of humorous music, in a similar style to the Hoffnung concerts. The concert was so well received that it became an annual event at Juilliard, and then presented to the public first in 1965 at New York’s Town Hall, and then at the Lincoln Centre.

The first public concert was recorded by Vanguard Classics, and presented to the wider world, the character who would make Schickele famous: PDQ Bach, the “last and oddest of JS Bach’s twenty-odd children”. Schickele, in the role of a “very Full Professor” of musicology at the University of Southern North Dakota (I trust by now you will have worked out that this is fictitious) would go on to present the “discovered” works of PDQ over the following decades, parodying many existing well-known works, often with instruments invented by Schickele. The music appeared on seventeen albums on Vanguard and Telarc, garnering Grammys in four successive years for Best Comedy Album.

In my article on the Hoffnung Festivals, I commented that “scoring works for totally unsuitable combinations of instruments has comedic value in the absurd sounds, but does become tiring fairly quickly”. This is my feeling about Schickele’s PDQ compositions: undoubtedly amusing and clever, but the joke (for me) can wear thin, especially when some works last more than ten minutes. The titles are another matter; for me, the funniest part. Let me give you a sample of some of the best:

  • The Short-tempered Klavier
  • Fanfare for the Common Cold
  • 1712 Overture
  • Erotica Variations
  • The Trite Quintet
  • Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice
  • Royal Firewater Musick
  • A Little Nightmare Music

Among the instruments he created was the Hardart, a combination of sound-producing components mounted on the frame of a coin-operated food dispenser (of a type used in the American Automat restaurants). Philip Glass, a classmate of Schickele’s at Juilliard, helped construct the device, which required the performer to insert coins into it to retrieve the various components, including a whistle and balloons (to be popped). The instrument was employed in the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, a clever reference to Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, the founders of the Automat chain. The piece, more than 10 minutes in length, is essentially a Mozart pastiche, with musical jokes such as unexpected dissonances and over-extended crescendos, and of course, the Hardart being “played” along with the French horn as solo instruments. The recording, from the 1965 album An Evening with PDQ Bach, was made in front of a live audience, who clearly enjoyed the visual humour of the Hardart being played, but as a listening-only experience, it left me cold.

The 1712 Overture from the 1989 album of the same name substitutes Tchaikovsky’s main theme with Yankee Doodle, and Pop Goes the Weasel replaces La Marseillaise. Again, this is a substantial piece, and follows the basic structure of the original work, employing a considerable proportion of Tchaikovsky’s music. The substitute tunes are cleverly (and seamlessly) incorporated, but I found it much less funny as a musical parody than Reizenstein’s Concerto popolare (from the first Hoffnung festival), which merged the Grieg and Tchaikovsky piano concertos with popular tunes.

I certainly haven’t listened to anything like all the PDQ music, but from what I have heard, the most successful (because it doesn’t try too hard to push the humour) is The Short-Tempered Klavier, which is a wonderful title. Its sub-title is similarly good: Preludes and Fugues in All the Major and Minor Keys Except for The Really Hard Ones, and it has the catalogue number S. easy as 3.14159 (I’ll let you work that out for yourself). It uses well-known music, such as Roll Out The Barrel, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth and Chopsticks, incorporated into the style of JS Bach’s famous work. Schickele’s skill as a composer is demonstrated very well here: the music is enjoyable in its own right, and the arrival of a well-known tune doesn’t feel forced. My favourite is the A major Fugue, which uses the chiming of a clock as its starting point.

Peter Schickele’s success over at least three decades clearly shows that my mostly lukewarm response is a minority view. I acknowledge the cleverness and the quality of the parody writing, and there is no doubt that had I attended a concert of his, I would have laughed along with the rest of the audience. There is a lot of his music on YouTube, but I am again unsure of the copyright status, so I will leave you to track it down if you so wish.