P.D.Q. Bach (AKA Peter Schickele): Sinfonia Concertante (S. 98.6)

For a child, change can seem daunting. In seventh grade, our township built a middle school to absorb the baby boomers causing over crowding in the high school. Some people rumored that middle schools were based on a Chinese idea and were against anything that hinted of communism. It was a new idea to mix seventh, eighth, and ninth graders together, and the thought of being thrown in with older kids and new ones from other parts of the township scared me. What if I weren’t in classes with friends? What if there were bullies?

I had come to be known as the class clown–more because I loved to tell jokes and make people laugh than for any other reason. One day in the new school, a friend told me about another student who was also very funny and arranged a meeting. I was a bit wary at first. Bit when I did meet Kerry Wade, we clicked immediately and became fast friends.

Kerry was the youngest of two brothers, the oldest of which had graduated from college and had majored in music and got a Ph.D. in psychology. His father was fairly well-off and provided Kerry with a lot of things that fed his interests. One of Kerry’s passions was the Marx brothers. His parent could afford a rooftop TV aerial (back before cable), and could pull in WGN from Chicago, which ran old movies. Kerry also had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and had taped all the Marx brothers films.

From Kerry, I learned the genius of the one-liner, the smart-alecky remark, the double entendre, and the prat-fall. Though I never actually saw any of the films until college, I knew most of Groucho’s best lines by heart.

Kerry loved sports cars and was also a gifted painter. We would pour over classic car books in the library and he once gave me a small book of the works of Chagall, who was one of his idols. My gimmick was to wear an old-fashioned tie (which I inherited from my grandfather) to school every day. Once, Kerry made a neck-tie for me on which he had drawn a picture of Harpo Marx ogling a set of legs, a soup stain with alphabet noodles glued on, and a picture of me driving my favorite car, an MGB TD.

Classical albums graced Kerry’s record collection, but he was more proud of his set of comedy records. While visiting his house one day, he showed me his latest possession–an odd-looking wind instrument. When I blew in it, it sounded like a duck. He laughed and told me it was a bagpipe without the bags and was used for learning the fingering. He took it apart and showed me how the double reed was actually in a chamber inside of the instrument. Kerry told me he was learning to play it.

“Why?” I asked. “So I can play this,” he said, taking an album from the shelf and cueing it up. It turned out to be the Peter Schickele’s (AKA P.D.Q. Bach) Sinfonia Concertante and when he played it I was captured by a brief but beautiful melody wheezed out by a bagpipe playing with a chamber orchestra.

Kerry had two albums by the professor, one of which spoofed a small classical radio station (Double U, Double O Eff) in Hoople, a mythical town in southern North Dakota. Schickele had a kind of Marx brother-type sense of humor which he grafted onto his skills as a composer by adopting the persona of P.D.Q Bach, “the last but least of J.S. Bach’s twenty-odd children.” Schickele had graduated from Julliard and wrote a number of songs for Joan Baez and the score for Oh Calcutta! the first nude musical. His compositions were full of musical jokes and awful puns, plagiarized famous works (the Quodlibet), satirized “serious” opera (Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn), and he gave concerts full of slapstick and visual jokes (on instruments of his own invention like the left-handed sewer flute.)

Youtube does not have a performance of the Sinfonia Concertante, but I’ve included a link to a performance of Iphgenia in Brooklyn from his album, PDQ Bach at Carnegie Hall.

Peter Schickele enjoyed a bit of fame several years ago on public radio with his show “Schickele Mix,” but back in the 60s in Indiana, Kerry and I were the only ones who had ever heard of him. Kerry lives in Oregon now and creates fantastic furniture in an old school that he bought and turned into his studio. I am eternally grateful to him, and I would never reverse the change in schools which brought us together.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

8 Responses to P.D.Q. Bach (AKA Peter Schickele): Sinfonia Concertante (S. 98.6)

  1. earwormopera says:

    PDQ Bach is the best – the line about using double reeds w/o oboes and bassoons cracks me up every time.

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  2. Gallivanta says:

    All new to me but I can imagine how great your friendship must have been.

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  3. Creative Dad says:

    I have conducted several of his pieces and have played several piano ones as well. It is a lot if fun. His radio show was fantastic. His “horns smoke” he wrote for the Canadian Brass is worth a look. (yeah…seeing it is much better than listening to it)

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    • kurtnemes says:

      What fun. I saw him a couple of times in the 1970s where he entered through the balcony and then climbed down a rope, ran up to the stage, and then did a flying belly flop and slid to the podium. Loved his radio show, too.

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  4. Creative Dad says:

    The instrument your friend had was called a practice chanter i believe.

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  5. G.H.Bone says:

    It’s the oddest coincidence that just yesterday I was talking to a friend about Peter Schikele and in particular about the the PDQ Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn. Then today, I visited your blog and found this! The reason we were discussing Schikele was that I was writing something for my blog touching on, amongst other people, Joshua Rifkin, who was an associate of Schikele and who, according to Wikipedia at least, sang countertenor at the premiere of Iphigenia in Brooklyn.

    Back in the early 1980s I saw Schikele at the Barbican Centre here in London. It was a fantastic, hilarious evening.

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    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for sharing your coincidence. This happened to me on another post of mine. I guess great minds think alike, eh? For some reason, I thought the counter tenor was Russ Oberlin. In college, I lived in a dorm with Drew Minter, another counter tenor. So I have a fondness for the voice. All the best.

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      • G.H.Bone says:

        Wikipedia (and other sources) say that Joshua Rifkin was the counter tenor at the premiere of Iphigenia, though, on the original Vanguard recording, the singer is listed as John Ferrante. It’s possible that Rifkin sang at the first concert performance but not on the record. Or it’s possible that someone made a mistake about Rifkin’s contribution and, as we know, mistakes get speedily replicated on the internet. Either way, even if Rifkin doesn’t have that particular claim to musical history, he still has no shortage of achievements to his name. Perhaps one of your readers will know the facts of the matter.

        Best wishes!

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