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Peter Schickele Dies at 88

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Peter Schickele died on January 16th, after increasing health problems that confined him to his home in Woodstock, New York. He was 88 years old. He had a long parallel career as a serious composer and a musical comedian, in which he was known all over as P. D. Q. Bach and made memorable recordings still in print. His parodies of learned styles and burlesques of well-known masterpieces endure for their educational value as much as for their unerring drollery — as in the Concerto for Horn and Hardart in which a quasi-Mozart appoggiatura is drawn out for 30 seconds before gasping to a resolution, and in the Quodlibet with tonic-dominant melodies from all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies accumulating, followed by a combination of Schoenberg’s Little Piano Piece, op. 19, no. 2, and Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo (who would have thought that one could work?). You can’t forget his Beethoven Fifth first movement as a down-on-the-farm sportscast, or the mini-opera The Abduction of Figaro. The NYTimes obit is HERE.

I first got to know Peter indirectly, when some of my classmates heard him at Aspen summers. He was a Swarthmore student then; after graduation he went to the Juilliard School, where he met and married Susan Sindall, whom I had known in prep school. That connection helped in 1978 when I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter came as a guest composer of the UNH Wind Ensemble, bringing a set of six new Contrary Dances, S. 39. We had him over to dinner, and he on the spot composed a two-part round on his own text in honor of Crawford, a pet crawfish who lived in our pond aquarium. At the concert at UNH, he conducted some of his serious pieces, including two amiable Monochromes for nine clarinets and12 flutes respectively.

After mostly retiring from the concert stage, he assembled a witty series of 175 hour-long Sunday programs, Schickele Mix, for National Public Radio, under different headings like “Basic Boom-chick,” a title which I have swiped for part of my Melody book — thank you for that, old friend — and “Basses Are Loaded.” Each program, over 15 years, ended with “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that certain je ne sais quoi.” Schickele Mix is fine musical enlightenment, still durable, and it’s still available.

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6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. From Wikipedia: “An arrangement featuring melodies from [Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance] Marches 1 through 4 was used in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 to accompany a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark featuring Donald and Daisy Duck. This version was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and features a choral accompaniment from the Chicago Symphony Chorus with soprano soloist Kathleen Battle.” Peter Schikele was the arranger.

    Mr. Schikele, a musical trickster if ever there was one, will be sorely missed. His unique ability to turn perfectly good compositions by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven into, for example, a study of how concert performances need color commentary to prevent concert goers from “falling into a confused slumber”, or how to re-write Mozart’s Serenade for Strings (# 13 in C) so that the WHOLE orchestra is given something to do!

    We will not see his like again. Spike Jones would have been proud!

    Comment by Michael Wiggins — January 18, 2024 at 2:16 pm

  2. Mr. Schickele was a guest conductor for the Omaha Pops when I was stationed at Offutt AFB in the early 80s. What I didn’t know before that performance, and I haven’t yet seen mentioned in any articles about him (I can’t get to the NYT obituary), is what an excellent bassoonist he was! Its having been 40 years I don’t remember the whole routine, but he did a piece where bit by bit he took the bassoon apart and ended up playing just the reed. He did something serious, as well, and it was an outstanding performance (but a standard piece from the repertoire so I don’t remember exactly what it was).

    Now if I could just find my tape (yep, I still have my VHS player) of The Abduction of Figaro!

    Comment by Dave Liesse — January 18, 2024 at 4:48 pm

  3. I have written maybe three compositions in my entire life, but I wrote one to submit as an entry in a ragtime composition contest and I won second prize. It was heavily influenced by P.D.Q. Bach. The title is “The Rag of Spring” and it’s a take-off on guess what. The musical example shown above is one of my favorite P.D.Q. Bach tricks — or I should say Schickele tricks, because the Quodlibet and the Unbegun Symphony are Schickele’s “own” compositions. Take a fragment of a well-known piece and bring it to an unexpected close, as here, or make it a musical pun as when the opening of Brahms’ second symphony becomes first “Beautiful Dreamer” and then “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay.”

    On “Shickele Mix” he was always playing supposedly unrelated pieces that shared some sort of connection. One time he played the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109, Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and three other pieces all based on up-a-third, down-a-fifth, up-a-third, down-a-fifth, etc: E – G – C – E – A – C. As he put it, “Give five children the same set of building blocks and you’ll get five totally different constructions.”

    The only other master of the musical pun I can think of is Gerard Hoffnung, and I don’t think either was aware of the other’s work at first. Schickele “discovered” the “Sanka Cantata” a few years before the first Hoffnung concerts in England. As for mashing together seemingly incompatible styles, one master was Igor Stravinsky who in three different pieces turned ragtime into neoclassic modernism. So I thought it’s only fair that I turn Stravinsky into ragtime. It’s what Pete would have done.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — January 18, 2024 at 6:53 pm

  4. I remember him for the comment with which he ended each broadcast, claiming to quote Duke Ellington:
    “If it sounds good, it is good.” Or, be confident in trusting your taste.

    Comment by Mark Homer — January 18, 2024 at 7:09 pm

  5. I will greatly miss Peter Schikele’s earthly presence. Besides being rendered in stitches by his early masterpieces, particularly “Concerto for Horn and Hardart,” I was privileged to program his “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth” on an Aston Magna program that featured Renaissance madrigals. It is one of the funniest and canniest musical parodies I know.

    In 1974 I was music director at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, which programmed Schickele’s music for the play “The Knight of the Burning Pickle,” a reworking of the 1607 Beaumont play “The Knight of the Burning Pestle.” (!) Peter was there for the rehearsals and first performance. That December he sent me a Christmas card featuring a photo of him being beaten on the head by his two young drum-stick wielding children. The caption: “An often-played composer.”

    Comment by Dan Stepner — January 20, 2024 at 7:08 pm

  6. I did not know that Schickele was a bassoonist! That might explain the genesis of his “Last Tango From Bayreuth” quartet.

    Comment by Stephen — January 23, 2024 at 10:14 am

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