Peter Schickele steps outside his P.D.Q. Bach persona for Blair premiere

Peter Schickele
Nashville Scene

In case you know Peter Schickele only through his zany satirical persona P.D.Q. Bach, let's get one thing straight up front: His woodwind quintet A Year in The Catskills, commissioned by the Blair School of Music and receiving its world premiere there on Monday, is not a work of comedy.

Still reading? Good, because "not comedy" certainly needn't mean "dour" or "humorless," as is clear in talking with the ebullient composer. Blair approached Schickele about writing the quintet not because of his reputation as a popular entertainer, but on the strength of his substantial catalog of serious works-and Schickele can say "my serious works" with a straight face, since he's just drawing a snobbery-free contrast with the "silly" side of his résumé.

The Blair Commissions Series is a long-term project, announced in 2005, to sponsor new works by major composers. Blair faculty ensembles and soloists make a commitment to keep the pieces in active performing repertoire, sparing the music from the too-common fate of complete dormancy after a premiere. The program also creates a chance for some of Blair's top performers to forge relationships with leading composers.

Blair is not alone in its high estimation of Schickele. His many commissions include works for the St. Louis Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In 1997, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax premiered a set of "New Goldberg Variations" (after J.S. Bach) by Schickele and five other composers. Besides his four Grammys for comedy, Schickele won a classical Grammy in 2000 for an album of brass music.

And about this P.D.Q. Bach fellow, if you've not had the pleasure: In a long-running series of concerts, recordings and one hilarious biography, "Professor Schickele" has presented mock-musicological researches into the fictional "last and least" of J.S. Bach's children, unearthing music for left-handed sewer flute and such pieces as The Short-Tempered Clavier and Other Dysfunctional Works.

Schickele's concert music is warm and lyrical in tone, good-natured even in its more dissonant moments. The inspiration of his Juilliard mentor Roy Harris is often evident in a musical vocabulary encompassing many American idioms but also grounded in the European classical tradition. A measure of eclecticism is unsurprising, given the diversity of Schickele's experience-he has, for instance, written a jazz piece for string quartet.

But he emphasizes the importance of stylistic integration. Too often, he suggests in a wide-ranging phone conversation, attempts to bring jazz or popular styles into concert music create stylistic juxtaposition rather true blending.

"I try to let those influences in," Schickele says, "but I never want the audience to feel as if they're hearing an arrangement."

The composer describes his new quintet as highly varied, ranging from pastoral fantasy to lament to fast jazz. He toyed with the idea of calling the work a concerto despite the absence of orchestra, since many passages feature one instrument as soloist against the rest of the ensemble. One movement is inspired by Bach (the real one), drawing on ideas still flowing after he finished his New Goldberg Variations.

"You would never mistake this for Bach, though," Schickele adds, citing frequent shifts in meter, texture and tempo. He speaks excitedly about a moment in the second movement when three instruments imitate each other a single beat apart. "It's one of my favorite textures," he enthuses. In the up-tempo finale he creates a jazz feel, using the bassoon and horn to imitate a string bass.

Schickele's multifaceted career could populate several impressive résumés. His concert music composition has been a constant, and in addition to creating P.D.Q. Bach, he's hosted the late lamented public radio program Schickele Mix, written arrangements for folk singers including Joan Baez, and scored several films, including delightful animated versions of the Maurice Sendak classics Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.

Schickele was a childhood fan of Spike Jones, whose farcical versions of pop songs and light classics were popular in the '40s and '50s. In retrospect, he says, one lesson of Jones' great band was that "the better played it is, the funnier it is." Hitting the right wrong notes takes skill too. "The trick," Schickele says, "is to make it seem easy."

As a composition student at Juilliard, Schickele teamed up in 1959 with conductor Jorge Mester to present a humorous concert, beginning an annual tradition. That persisted until 1965, when Schickele finally booked Town Hall for a public show. Vanguard Records released an album of the concert, and the career of P.D.Q. Bach was underway. "I had no idea I would still be doing this a half-century later," Schickele says, laughing.

Though it took a while before his comedy concerts became a money-making proposition, the composer now seems grateful to his comic alter-ego: for sustaining him, for giving him time to write other music, and no doubt for just being a whole lot of fun. Today he finds himself in an enviable position as an artist and composer: connecting with audiences familiar enough with "serious" music to get the jokes, but not too stuffy to laugh at them.