Sunday, April 20, 2014



P. D. Q. Bach is a fictitious composer invented by musical satirist “Professor” Peter Schickele. In a five-decade-long gag, that Schickele has developed, he performs “discovered” words of the “only forgotten son” of the Bach family. Schickele's music combines parodies of musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music and lots of slapstick comedy.

Anyone who's been to an American Circus has heard composer Julius Fucik's "March of the Gladiators". This "parody" Death Waltz has been making the rounds for years and turns up on music stands now and then and gives musicians heart attacks. It's never played, but just the sight of it is enough to make one quit music and take up selling encyclopedias door-to-door . It is more a statement about composers such as Richard Strauss, who upon consulting with a frustrated flute player over his "Ein Heldenleiben" with the score, noted that the violins had the same passage and that it was "unplayable in the first violins" as well. Having played the piece, I can attest to the unplayableness in some of the viola passages. In a measure of 16th notes, if you hit 12 right in the "Battle Scene" you're doing well. Since it's all a mad scramble, with the entire orchestra tearing  around, it sounds like, well, a battle!

I wore this album out, and several other that Schickele produced. One of my favorites is his take on Beethoven's 5th Symphony, where the announcers treat the first movement as if it were the first inning of a baseball game.

The name P. D. Q. is a parody of the three-part names given to some members of the Bach family that are commonly reduced to initials, such as C. P. E., for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. PDQ is an initialism for “pretty damn quick”.

The biography of the composer is given by Schickele with citations such as the following:
  • P. D. Q. was born in Leipzig on March 31, 1742, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach; the twenty-first of Johann's twenty children.
  • P. D. Q. attributed his frequent headaches to having been christened in a shipyard, rather than a church.
  • Defined the doctrine of Originality Through Incompetence.

One needn't be a musician to appreciate the wit of Schickele and his alter-ego, P. D. Q. Bach. As lecturer, Schickele would continue the commentary on a running gag that began in Concerto for Horn and Hardart and continue in the introduction to Six Contrary Dances on his Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion album, Schickele inferred from fictional evident that P. D. Q. Bach had a hollow leg that was considerably longer than the other one which explains the odd patterns in his dance music.

A take on the very famous Well-Tempered Clavichord by J. S. Bach. The music in this piece as well as being humorous, is dazzling for it's mixture of thematic material, development and execution.


P. D. Q. Bach Sonata for Viola 4 Hands and Harpsichord, S 440
Alicia Choi, Rose Wollman, viola, Garnet Ungar, harpsichord 

I'm a violist and made my living playing the viola for many years, but I had never seen this. I was in tears; this is one of the funniest things I've ever seen and how in the hell I missed this, I'll never know. Probably because I was too busy pretending to play the violin with my friend Nancy and first violin at that! ("What are those notes?" I asked her, during a break, when some batch of notes climbed off the stave up into the stratosphere. "Dunno. Just shift and play." Big help, so I just made sure that my "notes" were at least in the same key.

P. D. Q. Bach "The Abduction of Figaro" Act 1, Scene 1

This first scene plays up all of the silliness of Grand Opera, along with just having general fun with the re-iteration of phrases and musical lines, another "invention" of P. D. Q. Bach. What makes all of this so much fun, is that Schickele always gets very accomplished musicians to play along and join in the fun of satirizing their own art. I've always had fun playing music like this, and there are many other fine artists who satirize their own art forms. For more musical fun, check out Anna Russell and her Wagner's Ring Cycle interpretation. Ooh, it's terrific! 


Kathe W. said...

just discovered your blog- through A-Z.....very fun and instructive! Thanks- I'll be bach!

Viola Fury said...

@Kathe W.

I saw what you did there! Thanks so much for coming by! Musical satire is hard to pull off and is an acquired taste! Mary xoxo