This is a repost from August 2013. In addition to writing paradoies of baroque music, he also composed music for Joan Baez, the musical Oh! Calcutta! the first all nude broadway musical.
I mentioned before that my friend Kerry Wade had been a fan of Peter Schickele, who’d parodied baroque music under the nom de plume of P.D.Q Bach. Around the time of Switched-On Bach, Schickele released a comedy album, whose premise was a small classical public radio station (W.O.O.F.) at the “University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.”
Between farm commodity reports, the announcer ran a contest called “What’s My Melodic Line?” Listeners were invited to send in the name of a piece by a baroque composer, which a panel of experts musicians then had to try to play off the top of their head. Should the listener succeed, they would be entered in a yearly competition. The grand prize was the complete works of Antonio Vivaldi recorded on “convenient 45 rpm records,” which would be sent to the winner one a week “over the next 35 years.” The composer of the day was described as ” the prolific and least known of all the prolific and little known composers of the baroque period.”
One of my favorite types of humor has always been parody, so Schickele’s poking fun at baroque music really resonated with me. Serious musicians, however, tended to look down their nose at Schickele. I’m not sure why. That someone told jokes about music didn’t stop me from listening to music.
Maybe Schickele was actually making fun of serious musicians and composers of his own day. Only a fraction of Vivaldi’s music, I recently heard, has ever been recorded. And he was prolific. Perhaps Schickele was saying, “how come today, there aren’t any composers around like that?” Or perhaps, he was criticizing how people just keep going back and recording over and over again the same old familiar stuff. Every time I turn on the radio and hear Barber’s Adiagio for Strings or Pachelbel’s Canon for the umpteenth time, I want to throw something at it.
Finally, maybe he was making fun of the bubbly baroque style. Sometimes it is just too upbeat and gets on your nerves. Also, because of its conventions, it seems too “happy” to convey serious themes. For example, Handel wrote an oratorio called Israel in Egypt. In one chorus, the text recounts how Moses called down the plagues on Egypt. It goes something like:
“He spake the work and all manner of flies and lice descended.”
I still laugh whenever I think of that line. Schickele clearly had Handel in mind when he wrote : “Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn.” Here is the complete text:
“ARIA: As Hyperion across the flaming sky his chariot did ride, Iphegenia herself in Brooklyn found.
RECITATIVE: And lo, she found herself within a market, and all around her fish were dying; and yet their stench did live on.
GROUND: Dying, and yet in death alive.
RECITATIVE: And in a vision Iphegenia saw her brother Orestes, who was being chased by the Amenities; and he cried out in anguish: “Oh ye gods, who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows.”
ARIA: Running knows.”
Schickele scored the piece for double reeds. Normally that means oboes and English horns, but he had the musician just use the reeds, not the instruments. The result was a kind of musical Bronx cheer. In addition, the lead voice is a counter tenor, a part that requires a man with a bass voice to sing in falsetto, which imitates the castratto or male soprano which was popular back then. See what I mean by the conventions being kind of incongruous with the subject?
Obviously, the baroque era produced sublime works as well. Eventually, I will get around to discussing them. But, I want to reiterate that Schickele and the other popularization of the classics that took place in the 60s (such as “Switched-On Bach”) probably did more to help the cause of classical music than it did harm. And I will love to the day I die that horrible pun of that last aria in the Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn.