Born July 17, 1935, in Ames, Iowa; raised in Ames, Washington, D.C., and Fargo, N.D.; son of Rainer Wolfgang (an agricultural economist) and Elizabeth (Wilcox) Schickele; married Susan Sindell (a children's dance teacher), October 27, 1962; children: Karla, Matthew. Education: Studied music theory with conductor Sigvald Thompson; studied with composer Roy Harris, 1954; Swarthmore College, B.A., 1957; studied at Aspen Music School, 1959; Juilliard School, M.S., 1960, studied composition with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. Addresses: Office --c/o William Crawford, 237 East 72nd St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

In New York City in 1965 composer-musician Peter Schickele introduced the general public to his satiric creation, baroque composer P.D.Q. Bach. Billing himself as Professor Schickele, head of the department of Musical Pathology at the fictional University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, the entertainer recounted his discovery of this "last but least" of Johann Sebastian Bach's twenty-odd children (earlier known only "from police records and tavern IOU's") while taking a tour of a castle in Bavaria.

He opened the program with P.D.Q. Bach's "Concerto for Horn and Hardart," a fifteen-minute spoof of eighteenth-century musical style and form played on a homemade "hardart"--an assemblage of toy instruments, household items, exploding balloons, and coin operated windows dispensing sandwiches and pastries. Following with other "long-lost" P.D.Q. Bach compositions, the professor vowed to continue the search for new pieces ("the lastest score can't possibly be as bad as the one before")--a pledge served faithfully for the next twenty-five years--much to the delight of his always sold-out audiences.

"His slapstick, pratfall sort of humor is often so terribly self-indulgent, outrageously sophomoric, and inexcusably bad that we find ourselves laughing not so much at the jokes themselves as at his nerve in trying to pull them off," wrote Lawrence Widdoes, assessing Schickele's enduring appeal in High Fidelity. "Thus, the hiss and the boo have become accepted responses at the concerts, ultimately eliciting a deliciously crummy comeback from Schickele." Admiring the entertainer's "ability to walk the fine line between humor and excess," UCLA musicologist Robert Winter told Alan Rich in Smithsonian: "It isn't only that [Schickele is] exposing sacred cows. He's spoofing things that most people don't even know, and yet he makes them feel like insiders."

Schickele's early interest in music was coupled with a flair for the dramatic; he first dreamed of becoming an actor, and he and brother David ran a theatre in their basement, performing movie serials and westerns. At age 10 Peter heard a recording of musical humorist Spike Jones, and was smitten by the King of Corn's use of outrageous instruments and sound effects--like car horns and goat bleats--to burlesque popular songs. A bassoonist with the local symphony orchestra while in high school, Schickele later made his mark as a serious composer at the Juilliard School, but still felt the pull between classical and popular music, his attraction to Elvis and Ray Charles as strong as his devotion to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Studying classical composition with the distinguished Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma at Juilliard, Schickele earned a masters degree in 1960, returning there to teach. Yet, in an interview with New York Times writer Allan Kozinn, Schickele admitted that he spent much of his time composing, arriving for classes unprepared. Worse still, the teacher found himself chafing at the institution's restrictive attitude towards "quality" music; his Serenade for Piano --incorporating rock and roll in the final movement--was deemed unsuitable concert material when performed at Juilliard in 1961. Feeling that his serious music owed as much to jazz, folk, and rock as it did to traditional classical music, Schickele hatched in P.D.Q. Bach a good-humored way to challenge such musical myopia.

While an undergraduate student in 1953, Schickele--along with his brother and a musician friend--playfully overdubbed one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with a pair of tape recorders, making it sound "like mud wrestling." Further foolery yielded Schickele's "Sanka Cantata" (a take-off of Bach's "Coffee Cantata") and the first of forgotten composer P.D.Q. Bach's dubious masterworks. When asked to extend a Juilliard concert program six years later, Schickele obliged with Concerto for Horn and Hardart ; thenceforth new P.D.Q. Bach pieces surfaced at annual concerts at the Aspen Music School in Colorado.

By April 1965 there was enough P.D.Q. material for a full-scale concert at New York's Town Hall--the Vanguard recording of it was as wildly successful as the live performance itself. Schickele told Christian Science Monitor reporter Jo Ann Levine that he chose to lampoon music from the era of Bach and Mozart both because he loved it, and because "eighteenth century music has a well-defined style, so you can depart from it."

Correspondingly, Widdoes noted that because baroque music "represents the epitome of periwigged musical dignity and sophistication" Schickele's satires are all the more striking; while acknowledging the professor's kinship to contemporary musical humorists Anna Russell and Victor Borge, the High Fidelity critic felt that Schickele lacked their cosmopolitan polish, using instead "unmistakably American," Spike Jonesian humor devices: "slipshod cadences, embarrassing country and western melodic fragments, blue notes, unexpected dissonant clusters, outdated scat phrases, ... Guy Lombardo endings, and ridiculous-sounding homemade instruments."

Thus, P.D.Q. Bach's Pervertimento requires bagpipes, a bicycle, and balloons, and Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra culminates with an exploding piano bench; other Schickele/P.D.Q. irreverences include Fanfare for the Common Cold, the opera Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, the dramatic oratorio Oedipus Tex, the Unbegun Symphony, and The O.K. Chorale. Taking his musical spoof one step further, the professor published the mock-scholarly Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach in 1976, complete with tongue-in-cheek bibliography, glossary, and discography.

While cultivating thousands of fans with his musical wit, Schickele has also drawn praise for the consummate skill underlying his musical burlesques; in High Fidelity Michael Anthony felt that the entertainer's musical gags work so well only "because of Schickele's deep understanding of the eighteenth-century musical idiom." Former Juilliard student and minimalist composer Philip Glass admitted in Smithsonian that "Peter was, in all my class, the most gifted.... He could write synthetic Copland, synthetic Stravinsky, and for that matter, synthetic Bach and Mozart.... He inspired us simply because he made music seem easy. He had no fear of the terrors of composition; he took the anxiety out of making music."

The creator of much non-P.D.Q. Bach music, Schickele has scored for film and television, and written songs for musicals and popular recording artists. From 1967 to 1971 he introduced a number of serious works while a member of the chamber-rock-jazz trio Open Window; later Schickele compositions include Pentangle: Five Songs for Horn and Orchestra, String Quartet No. 1: American Dreams, and Spring Serenade, for Flute and Piano. Reviewing the last of these for the American Record Guide, David W. Moore observed that the composer's "fondness for effective simplicity combines with a sensitive feeling for harmony and mood"; other critics have found in Schickele's serious works a mirror of the man himself: direct, individual, expert, and relaxed.

by Nancy Pear

Peter Schickele's Career

Composer of classical music, mid-195Os--; created P.D.Q. Bach persona, 1953, P.D.Q. Bach music first performed at Juilliard concert, 1959; co-founded Composers Circle at Juilliard; composer-in-residence in Los Angeles public school system, 1960-61; teacher at Swarthmore College, 1961-62; teacher of extension courses at Juilliard, 1961-65; first P.D.Q. Bach commercial concert at Town Hall in New York City, 1965, P.D.Q. Bach recordings, 1965--; composer of film scores, mid-196Os--; performed and recorded with chamber-rock-jazz trio Open Window, 1967-71; composer and arranger for pop and folk vocalists, later 196Os--. Yearly nationwide P.D.Q. Bach concerts performed with local symphony orchestras or with Schickele's own New York Pick-Up Ensemble. Has performed frequently on television.

Peter Schickele's Awards

Gershwin Memorial Award, 1959; Ford Foundation grant, 1960-61; Elizabeth Tow Newman Contemporary Music Award, 1964; honorary doctorate, Swarthmore College, 1980; Grammy Award for best comedy recording, 1989, for P.D.Q. Bach: 1712 Overture and Other Musical Assaults, and 1990, for P.D.Q. Bach: Oedipus Tex.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 16 years ago

there is a spelling mistake in the list of famous works: the work named 'Oedipus Rex and other choral calamities' is icorrect: it must be must be Oedipus Tex, as Schickele / PDQ Bach created a musical pastiche by placing the story of the old greek tragedy 'Oedipus Rex' by Sophocles in the context of contemporary Texas; hence: 'Oedipus Tex'.