Composer / Humorist  Peter  Schickele
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


There is much more to Peter Schickele than just P.D.Q. Bach.  That
’s right, he is actually a true composer as well as the discoverer of the works The Soused One.

Many people are familiar with the satire, and that material certainly has brought joy
and knowledgeto countless numbers of old friends as well as blank-slated newcomers.  But Schickele also has a more serious side, although the works which are penned under that moniker do have joy and humor.  Together they may not complete a perfect yin and yang, but it surely becomes a healthy balance for his own creativity, and a further world well worth investigating. 

A concise overview of his career is included in the box at the end of this conversation.

When requesting this interview, I made it clear that the main interest this time was Peter Schickele, not P.D.Q. Bach.  Naturally, both sides of this man did come up in the conversation, but the serious portion gets its fair share . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is it easier for Peter Schickele to deal with the schizophrenia than it is for P.D.Q. Bach to deal with it?

Peter Schickele:    I can only speak for Peter Schickele, and he doesn’t have any trouble dealing with it himself as a composer.  I find that I can be working on a P.D.Q. Bach discovery and a serious piece at the same time, and there’s no problem.  The problem comes in the perception of other people, many of whom don’t know that I do anything serious.  They are not only surprised, but sometimes even disappointed when they find out.  I think a lot of people fell it’s sort of, “Oh no, not another clown who wants to play Hamlet.”  I have had some unfortunate experiences of people who come to a concert of mine that has a serious piece on it, sort of looking for something to laugh at.

schickeleBD:    Is it really a case of Hamlet wanting to play the clown, or the clown wanting to play Hamlet?

PS:    I’m like Alec Guinness
I don’t want to make a choice.  I want to play both.  [Laughs]

BD:    From the standpoint of Peter Schickele, what do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

PS:    Just to be beautiful, I think.  I am not a very theoretical person.  As far as I’m concerned, beauty is its own excuse for being, and I would say that I have basically the same purpose with P.D.Q. Bach as I do with my serious music, and that is to bring joy to people.  It takes different routes in those different avenues.  A lot of people ask me about the Beethoven sportscast thing that’s on one of the P.D.Q. Bach records.  That is very educational, and it’s used by a lot of teachers around the country as a sort of an introduction to what’s going on in a symphony, and people have asked me if that’s why I did it.  Well, it’s not why I did it.  I did it because I thought it was a funny idea.  I think it’s wonderful that it is used that way because, like Anna Russell’s routine of telling the story of the Wagner Ring Cycle, what makes it funny is that it really is true and it’s still ridiculous.

BD:    The accuracy factor is there.

PS:    Yes, right, but it’s not why I do it.  That’s a very nice by-product.

BD:    So it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if it had not been accurate, if the themes hadn’t been in the right place, and if the ideas had been all wrong, or if it had just been a smattering of this and that?

PS:    Right.  I think what makes it work is that when I say, “They’re taking that theme and breaking it up into little pieces; just two notes left to that theme being tossed around from player to player,” that is, in fact, what is actually happening.

BD:    Is Peter Schickele at all jealous of the notoriety of P.D.Q. Bach?

PS:    I suppose.  I don’t know if jealous is the word... well, maybe it is the word.  I certainly would like my other stuff to be better known, but I still resist the attempts of some people to get me to say which I like better because if you’d asked me when I was eleven years old what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said an actor or a playwright or something.  I was completely involved in this little theater in my basement which went on for five years.  Obviously that thespian vein of ham is very much still with me, and that’s something that gets a great release with P.D.Q. Bach.  And I’ve always loved making people laugh.  On the other hand, it is only part of my personality.  My serious music, as I think anybody who’s heard much of it knows, is not knitted-brow serious music.  It’s not hard to get to kind of stuff, and I guess I would have to say I’m jealous, slightly, just in the sense that there is sometimes a sort of a backlash.  I know of a particular instance in which a performing group approached a foundation that gives grants for commissioning works, asking to commission a serious piece from me.  They were told, “No, we can’t give you money for Peter Schickele.  He’s too commercial.”  They said, “Wait a minute.  This isn’t a P.D.Q. Bach piece; it’s a Peter Schickele work,” but they were told, “Nah, it doesn’t matter.  He’s too commercial.”

BD:    Would there ever be a case where P.D.Q. Bach would come out and do a lot of his music and a piece by Peter Schickele?

PS:    I find it a little tricky to mix.  I once saw Victor Borge when I was a kid in Fargo, North Dakota, and he played the whole second half of the program straight.  Of course, everybody was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

BD:    Or the other pedal to fall off!  [Both laugh]

PS:    That’s right, exactly.  As a matter of fact, when I got to know him a little bit later on, I told him about that and he said, “No, I couldn’t have done that.  I never do that.”  I said, “No, you really did.  You played the whole second half straight,” and he said, “Well, the only thing I can think of is maybe it was a decent piano, and that’s so rare I couldn’t resist.”  In a regular P.D.Q. Bach concert, I don’t mix anything serious.  My favorite Marx Brothers movies are the ones like Duck Soup that are just completely wild from beginning to end, the ones without the serious love interest.  The only time I do mix them in my own concerts is when I sometimes guest conduct university bands.  I’ll be going back to the Harvard Band, for instance, in a couple of months, and we’ll do Peter Schickele stuff on the first half, and end with a couple of P.D.Q. Bach pieces in the second half.  But I don’t do any weird entrance or anything like that; I’ll just be conducting the pieces.  The P.D.Q. Bach concerts are really quite a theatrical experience from beginning to end.

BD:    Have you ever used a little bit as leverage
you’ll give them a little of P.D.Q. Bach if they’ll play a Peter Schickele?

PS:    I can’t think of a specific instance where it was ‘if you’ll play this, you will also get that.’

BD:    Or perhaps even two separate concerts?

PS:    I guess where I use the leverage perhaps more is financially, in talking about commissions.  I’m certainly willing to do a Peter Schickele piece for less than I might a P.D.Q. Bach piece.  I use the marketplace in that sense, but I don’t like to be too gross about it.  There are a lot of people who like P.D.Q. Bach who maybe wouldn’t like my serious stuff, and I don’t like to be in a position of ramming anything down anybody’s throat.

BD:    For whom does Peter Schickele write?

PS:    I write for people who like the kind of music that I write
and there are a lot of them.  I’m in this for the long run.  I’m not like some pop composer who’s anxious to get that Number One hit and then split with the money.  What’s gratifying is that over the years, the chamber music and particularly the choral music is becoming increasingly played.  As a matter of fact, one of the very gratifying things about this String Quartet #1 that I’m here in Chicago for now, is that not only the Vermeer, but another quartet is playing it.  It was commissioned by the Audubon String Quartet, and they’ve recorded it for RCA.  I don’t know if it’s out yet, but what’s very gratifying is that both the Vermeer and another quartet are taking it up not as a result of any wheeling and dealing on the part of my publisher or anybody else, but simply because they heard it on the radio and liked it so much they wanted to play it.  This is the nicest way to have that kind of thing happen.  The quartet has had a tremendous response from the Audubon’s concerts, and I understand from the Vermeer’s played it in Europe.

schickeleBD:    Does this encourage you for String Quartet Number Two and String Quartet Number Three?

PS:    Number Two is already written.  It was commissioned by the Lark Quartet and is going to be premiered in May in New York.  Number Three is a commission from the Swarthmore String Quartet.  That’s my alma mater and they have a student string quartet.  I’m working on that one, and I’ve got sketches for a couple more.  It’s very interesting because I grew up with string quartet in the house.  My brother was
and isa fanatic quartet player.  He plays viola, and as a high school student was always getting high school kids over to play quartets.  We also did a lot of quartet playing in the evening with mixed generations.  My brother’s violin teacher and the conductor of the orchestra and everybody would get together and play quartets and quintets and sextets.  They did the Brahms quintets and sextets and the Mozart quintets, but in spite of thisor maybe because of it — after one student effort in the string quartet vein, I went for years without writing a quartet.  I just didn’t seem to get ideas in the medium for many years.

BD:    So, Quartet #1 is really not quartet number one, then?

PS:    It’s not the very first quartet I’ve written, but I’ve long ago retracted that first one I wrote.

BD:    Are historians going to find that and make it Quartet Number Zero?

PS:    Maybe they can do that, right!  [Laughs]  It’s not a piece I’m ashamed of or anything.  As I remember it, and I haven’t heard it for decades, it’s a very solid piece, very much in the shadow of the two composers who were my most important influences at that point, Hindemith and Roy Harris.  It was written, as a matter of fact, just after I’d finished studying with Roy Harris the summer I turned nineteen.  That was in 1954, and I didn’t write another quartet until 1983, so it was quite a little span there.  But now that the Audubon commissioned that first quartet, the flood gates have been opened, and it now seems like something that I’m going to write a lot of.

BD:    Good, a whole string of them... 

PS:    [Chuckles]  Actually it’s funny, but there are certain pieces that you write one of and you don’t feel a particular urge to write more.  But the quartet is something that I feel I’m probably going to write a bunch of, and I’m interested in the contrast from quartet to quartet, as well as within each piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your time between P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele?  Is it just those two, or is there a third thing sprinkled in that we don’t know about?

schickelePS:    Yeah, it’s even more complicated than P.D.Q. Bach and the so-called serious music, because I also write songs in the modern, what you might call folk/pop tradition of Paul Simon, John Sebastian and Randy Newman.  I’ve been writing them for years, and I usually sing them several times a year, but up until now I haven’t had an agent going out and getting dates for me.  I only do them when a date comes up because somebody else has heard about them.  If I do a composer-in-residence thing at a university or a chamber music festival, I very often ask in addition to an evening of my chamber music, if I can also do an evening of these songs.  This is partly because my own feeling is that contemporary classical music — for want of a better term — has, for my taste, gotten too far away from folk music.  You know, Haydn wrote the Austrian National Anthem.  It’s very hard to imagine Elliott Carter doing the same for this country.  [Both laugh]  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]  I certainly don’t mean to sound more dogmatic than I am.  There’s some very esoteric music that I love, going all the way back to Gesualdo, but my own taste is quite melodic, and quite folky.

BD:    It wouldn’t be hard to imagine John Williams writing the national anthem.

PS:    That’s right.  On the other hand, John Williams is not a composer whose pieces occur on regular Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription programs much either.  [Note: In the fall of 2003, Williams wrote a Horn Concerto for the principal of the CSO, Dale Clevenger.  See my Interview with Dale Clevenger.]

BD:    There’s this huge gulf that has developed...

PS:    Tremendous gulf!

BD:    ...between the serious, classical
material and the popular, lighter stuff.  Are you trying to bridge this gulf, and should we try and bring both sides together?

PS:    I try to bridge it, but here again, not so much because of a philosophical bent, although I do feel that they should be closer together.  The reason I’m stumbling here is that I think that wanting to do something artistically doesn’t always necessarily mean you can do it.  I think the idea of bringing jazz and classical music together
the way they wanted to in the sixties in the so-called ‘third stream music’is a good idea, but of the music I’ve heard, not many of the pieces were very successful at it.  [Note: The term third stream was coined by Gunther Schuller.  See my Interview with Gunther Schuller.]  They always felt very much like one juxtaposed with the other.  To me, the best pieces — my favorite pieces from that periodtend to come from either a classical composer who maybe was influenced by jazz somewhat, or by a jazz composer like John Lewis, who was influenced by classical music.  But the very self-conscious juxtapositions of Rolf Liebermann and people like that sounded dated to me even when they were written.  [Laughs]

BD:    Even something like pieces of Francis Thorne?  [See my Interview with Francis Thorne.]

PS:    I’m not familiar with what he did in that area, but I certainly do bring them together in my own music.  What I’m trying to say is that I don’t approach it from the standpoint of how can I bring this together, but what I do do is leave myself open to all the music I love.  Over the years I’ve been more and more successful, I think, at least from my own standpoint, of integrating these things in a natural way.  The secret, of course, is to keep it from sounding either glib or precious.

BD:    In music, either yours or someone else’s, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

PS:    That’s another thing that is something that maybe the composer doesn’t really think of so much in those terms.  I look at that very much the way Mozart does.  When Mozart went to Paris, he knew that Parisians liked symphonies that opened with big, strong, loud unison passages, and so he wrote one.  It didn’t mean that it was a less good symphony than any other.  It didn’t automatically mean, because he was trying to please somebody, that it was a compromise.  Similarly, I received a commission from a flutist for a piece for flute and piano, and she specifically said, “I’d like this to be the program-ender.  I’d like it to be something that you’re going to want to end the program with, something with a little razzle-dazzle in it.”  I don’t regard that as something requires compromise, but it does put a certain cast on the piece.

BD:    Obviously, if you didn’t think you could do that, you would have declined the commission?

PS:    Yes, right, and I think there’s a difference in different composers, as far as personality goes, in that sense.  One of the reasons that I’m so fond of Mozart and Schubert, for instance, and feel a greater affinity for Mozart and Schubert than I do for Beethoven, is that Mozart and Schubert were both capable of being charming as well as... I was about to say ‘profound,’ but I don’t even like to say that because a lot of their charming music is profound.  Or at least it’s music that you enjoy listening to over and over and over again, so that means there’s something deep there.

schickeleBD:    Do you have more affinity, then, for Mozart and Schubert than you do, say, for Babbitt and Carter?

PS:    I would say so, yes, even though both of them have written pieces I like.  Among twentieth century composers, for instance, I certainly have much more of an affinity for Stravinsky, who’s another composer who was capable of writing a divertimento.  We’re talking about taste here.  I’m not standing up here saying this guy is a better composer.

BD:    No, of course not.

PS:    We’re talking about taste, but for my taste, when Schoenberg writes a serenade I say, “Is that your idea of a serenade, really???”  [Both laugh]  I mean this is a very different weltanschauung; it’s a very different world outlook from mine if that’s a serenade.  Another person, some of whose music I’ve admired tremendously among the older guard of twentieth century composers, is Messaien.  There we’re not dealing with charm; we’re dealing with ecstasy.  One of the reasons that I have trouble with a big strain of contemporary music — that’s a strain in the genetic sense! [both laugh] — is that I like repetition, and the whole principle of twelve-tone music is to avoid repetition.  Even though it doesn’t necessarily mean that you literally always, forevermore, avoid repetition, the basis of the system is avoiding repetition.  In 1959 I was in a special seminar at Princeton with of a bunch of young composers from all over the country.  I can remember Milton Babbitt getting up there and giving these mathematical models, figuring out mathematically what is the least expected next note every time.  To me that kind of thinking doesn’t produce the least expected note.  What produces surprise is to do something twice the same, and then the third time do something different.  Start it the same and then do something different, which is an old comedy rule.  It’s the standard thing of jokes
— you do something twice and the third time is the punch line.  Even if you’re not dealing with humor, that tends very often to be true.  You do something at least once or maybe twice, and then when you do it differently the third time.  That’s what produces the surprise.  So one of the things I like about Messaien, and one of the things I like about some of the minimalist music, is I like repetition.  I like every one of those repetitions at the end of “Hey, Jude.” 

BD:    I was going to ask about minimalist music, because this is the ultimate in repetition.

PS:    Well, I’m choosy about it.  I don’t like it all, but I like some of it very much.  Phil Glass is an old friend of mine, and I just did a take-off on Phil at the annual P.D.Q. Bach concerts last Christmas in New York.  I did a new P.D.Q. Bach discovery which is the prelude to an opera called Einstein on the Fritz.  He was in the audience.  I called and told his wife that I was going to be doing a take-off on him, and he called up the next night and said, “Et tu, Brute?”  [Both laugh]  Basically I only do take-offs on music I like.  That’s one of the reasons that P.D.Q. Bach is a late 18th Century composer
he composed in the style of his father, Bach, and his contemporaries, Mozart and Haydn.

BD:    So composers should be insulted if there is no take-off on their music?

PS:    [Laughs]  Right, if they want to bother to be insulted.  I prefer to say ‘don’t feel an affinity for’ because for instance, I don’t feel a particular affinity for Wagner and Strauss.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t like any of their music.  The Prelude and Love Death is fantastically beautiful, but I don’t go out of my way to hear their music and collect their music.  I have more Mozart records than any other composer, and if I were doing P.D.Q. Wagner, I would have been tired of doing it long before twenty-three years had elapsed.

BD:    Have you taken off Peter Schickele yet?

schickelePS:    That’s a very nice question.  I’m not quite sure; I haven’t, self-consciously anyway.  I’m trying to think...  Of course, part of the whole point of a take-off is that the style has to be not only well-established from the standpoint of the composer, but also well established in the ears of the listeners, so that it’s quite easily recognizable.  My serious music is perhaps not really well enough known yet for that to happen.  There is a work, as a matter of fact, I did recently with the Chicago Symphony, called A Bach Portrait, which has definite echoes of Copland in it.  But that’s a very interesting idea.  There certainly is a cross-influence between P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele, in a sense that one of my problems is that I don’t even see humorous and funny as two separate boxes.  I see it as a continuum.  There’s a piece that is just out-and-out slapstick funny, and then there’s a piece that is really serious.  The Second String Quartet that I mentioned is a very serious piece.  It’s called In Memoriam and was written in the memory of my wife’s sister’s husband, who died a couple of years ago.  The last movement is certainly one of the most elegiac things I’ve ever written, but even there, in the second movement there’s a very joking reference to the Lark Quartet of Haydn because the Lark Quartet commissioned it.  It is very tongue-in-cheek; I think like Haydn very much.  I like to feel that you don’t have to keep them completely separate.  One of the analogies I always think of is that people accept a serious play or serious movie that has comic scenes in it, but with a piece of music, they somehow expect it to be all funny or all serious.  In a piece called Pentangle, which is basically a French horn concerto, the first movement and the slow movement are very serious.  That middle movement is very slow, very evocative, but the fourth movement of the five is a tribute to magicians.  When it’s done live, the horn player has trouble producing a note, then finds flowers in his horn and takes a scarf out of the mouthpiece.  The result of that is that many conductors find that the piece is too serious for a pops concert and too funny for a subscription concert.

BD:    So you’ve landed right in the middle where no one will touch it?

PS:    Right.  I had a manager of an orchestra who is also a friend once tell me, “I think you ought to be able to program Peter and the Wolf on a subscription concert.  It’s one of the best pieces Prokofiev ever wrote, but it does get me into trouble.”  To go back to a question you asked way back there, as far as splitting up the time goes, what I try to do is to save the summer half of the year for composing, and specifically for Peter Schickele stuff.  The winter half of the year is basically for touring.  In point of fact, it’s never that easy.  I’m right now working on a couple of Peter Schickele pieces.  I just got a commission from the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society for a rather unusual combination, the Trout Quintet combination plus bassoon, which is what they’re touring with next year.  So it’ll be violin, viola, cello, bass, piano and bassoon, which I’m having fun with.  I’m working on those right now, and there are also some times when I work on P.D.Q. Bach during the summer, because they have to be done for one kind of deadline or another.  But what I try to do is to sort of keep it summer and winter.

BD:    Have you been pleased with the recordings of the music of Peter Schickele?

PS:    I would say basically, yeah.  There are two Vanguard recordings that I think now only may be available on cassette.  Vanguard was sold about a year ago or so, and it
’s a wonderful example of chickens coming home to roostit was bought by Lawrence Welk Enterprises.  Lawrence Welk’s son, Larry Welk, runs a big record enterprise.  It’s not just Lawrence Welk music at all.  They have a bunch of labels that they run out of L.A., and he’s very good at what he does.  But they are handling the catalogue now, and they’re re-issuing all of the P.D.Q. Bach things on CD and cassette.  Vanguard had not gotten around to doing any of in the former case and most of in the latter end.  But I think that the two Vanguard Peter Schickele records are just going to be on cassette now; both of them I’m very happy with.  Pentangle and another work of mine called The Fantastic Garden are on the Louisville Orchestra label, and the performance of the First String Quartet is supposed to be coming out now on RCA.  Its dynamite.  Unfortunately some of the pieces of mine have been recorded on little labels, and were never easy to get a hold of, and maybe now even more difficult.  One of my best pieces is a cantata called The Lowest Trees Have Tops for soprano, flute, viola and harp, and that was recorded on the Grenadilla label, which I’m not even sure if that’s still available.  But as I say, in the long run the Peter Schickele things are getting done more and more, and I always have commissions for them, as well as for P.D.Q. Bach discoveries.  As a matter of fact, recently I have been turning down P.D.Q. Bach discovery commissions, just because I felt like I was OD’ing on them a little bit.

BD:    How do you decide which commissions for Peter Schickele you will accept, and which you will decline?

PS:    I would say that it’s partly on whether I’m interested in writing the piece.  It’s not as if I’m inundated with them, as I imagine certain composers are, but I occasionally do turn down a commission because it’s just not the kind of thing I want to do at the moment.  I’ve written, for instance, several pieces for the Canadian Brass, and we’ve had a very fruitful association including one of my best pieces, which, here again, is a Peter Schickele piece but it’s also funny.  It has nothing to do with the 18th Century or anything; it’s a western.  It’s a horse opera for brass quintet called Hornsmoke, and the members of the quintet are actually the characters in addition to playing their instruments.  They’re in costume, and there’s a set and everything, and it was an extremely felicitous coming together.  I’ve written several pieces for them since, but the last couple of times they’ve talked to me about pieces, they usually want something that is sort of humorous in one way or another.  I’ll be doing that again some time, I’m sure, but the last couple of times they’ve talked to me, I just haven’t been up for that.  You feel like you want to change around a little and not get in a rut.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you done any teaching?

PS:    I assumed, going through school, that I was going to be a teacher because that’s the way composers made their living in those days, and still do mostly, I suppose, but it’s a little bit more varied now that it used to be.  When I graduated from Julliard, where I got my master’s in composition, I first had a Ford Foundation Grant for writing music for high schools in Los Angeles.  So that was a completely composing gig, which was a real luxury.  Then I came back and taught for one year at Swarthmore, and I also did some teaching in the extension division at Julliard.

BD:    Teaching composition?

schickelePS:    No.  Teaching theory and history, what they call Literature and Materials in Music.  During the next four years, which was ’61 to ’65, I ended up teaching in all three divisions of Julliard extension
in the prep division and also in the regular divisionsear training, history, theory, and in the prep division, composition.  In 1965 I quit teaching because that was the first year I started doing P.D.Q. Bach publicly, and I wanted to be free to go on the road with P.D.Q. Bach.  Little did I know that it would take six or seven years for me to figure out how to go on the road without losing my shirt.  So for those first few years, I didn’t tour more than two, three, four weeks a year, and I’d always come back poorer than when I left.  I used to take my own twenty-two piece orchestra.  It was a great show and everything, but it just was a very efficient way of losing money.  So in 1969 I started appearing as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras, and after a few years that began to really pick up.

BD:    Do you ever find that the orchestral players don’t want to ‘do any of this nonsense?’

PS:    There probably are a few, but I must say that most orchestral players seem to be really enjoying it.  I get so many nice comments from orchestras about, “I can’t wait until you come back.”  Sometimes I get orchestra players telling me, “We’re in the middle of negotiations, and boy, do we ever need you now!”  [Both laugh]  The classic statement along those lines was something that somebody said to Jorge Mester, who was the original P.D.Q. Bach conductor, and he just conducted the Christmas concerts this last year in New York again.  [See my Interview with Jorge Mester.]  It was not an orchestral music, but an administrator who is also a composer said to him, “Peter Schickele makes fun of things that some of us hold sacred.”  I’m sure there are some people in orchestras who feel that way, but they’re not the ones that tend to talk to me.  But my feeling with the orchestras that I play with is certainly not that, and it’s been particularly gratifying.  My concert recently with the Chicago Symphony was certainly one of the highlights of my whole career.  It was just a fantastic concert, and one of the things that made it so great was that here I was with one of the best orchestras in the world, and they were so cooperative and so friendly and so ready for whatever I asked them.  We had to get the brasses so that they could make an entrance from the back of the house at the end of a piece, and they had to do it in very little time.  It was during the piece; they appeared on stage, and then a minute later so they have to appear in the back of the house.  So it meant that they had to go out in the alley and come in a side door.  Then it started snowing, and I know these guys were never going to take their instruments out in an alley.  I don’t know if they put them under their coats or what, but they were so wonderfully cooperative!  Obviously different people have different senses of humor and I know people that I like that don’t enjoy P.D.Q. Bach.  But I think that most musicians recognize that P.D.Q. Bach is a satire of love, and I think the two things can live together in peace.  My favorite concerts are the ones that have a warm feeling to them.  Obviously I want people to laugh, but there are some comedians who are angry comedians
the Lenny Bruce kind of guys — and then there are some comedians who go just as far as they can go in terms of taste and obnoxiousness.  I’m not really either of those.

BD:    Are you on the cutting edge of anything?

PS:    I don’t know what that means, really.  What do you mean, exactly?

BD:    Blazing new ground...

schickelePS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I can’t think of anybody who does just what I do, but new ground implies that that’s what everybody’s going to be doing next.  I don’t know that that’s true.

BD:    Is there room for an F.X.Y.Z. Mozart?

PS:    Maybe by somebody else; I don’t know.  I found that P.D.Q Bach, with the exception of a few excursions into other territory
like Bach Portrait and Einstein on the Fritz — P.D.Q. Bach seems to be a fertile field for me, and I think part of it is because of that thing that I mentioned, the affinity.  The secret ingredient of P.D.Q. Bach is that I try to make sure that the pieces are fun to listen to aside from the gags.  You enjoy listening to them more than once just musically.

BD:    Okay, now what is the secret of Peter Schickele?

PS:    [Laughs]  Same secret!

BD:    Is there a chance that Peter Schickele will do a take-off on P.D.Q. Bach?

PS:    [Laughs]  As I say, that gets a little hard to define.  There certainly is a cross-influence.  There’s a piece of mine for two clarinets and bassoon called Dances for Three, and this is a divertimento kind of piece.  It’s not a funny piece like P.D.Q. Bach is, but on the other hand it’s an easy-going piece.  The movements are a polka and a samba and a tango — well, actually not a polka, but a minuet — and they are in this continuum from serious to funny where there’s a whole area in the middle that you might call
witty.  There are Scarlatti sonatas that make me smile, for instance.  I don’t know that you call them funny pieces, but...

BD:    Is this where Last Tango in Bayreuth fits?

PS:    A little bit, although that’s more towards the funny side, but yeah.  I can imagine somebody enjoying that piece who’d never heard any of those Wagner themes.  It’s a nice little tango, but in this case the last movement is a sort of modern look, or a modern homage if you want to put it that way, to the kind of piece that Mozart would write in the last movements of his divertimentos like the B Flat Grand Partita or the pieces for two clarinets and bassoon.  In a way it’s sort of a take-off on 18th Century music, the way some Stravinsky might be thought of as a take-off on it, but it’s not something you’re supposed to slap your thigh about.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

schickelePS:    My main advice is to write for combinations that you can get together to play the piece, and then hear it.  There’s absolutely nothing that takes the place of hearing it, and even great composers can suffer from not hearing their music; I
’m thinking of Charles Ives, for instance.  I can see why he gave up trying to get performances because of the opposition he faced, but I sometimes have the feeling that it would have affected his music to the good to have heard those pieces performed more, and heard certain things that seem to work and certain things that seem not to work so well.  I like to start thinking very small and then see what happens.  In other words, write for people that you know and are going to play the piece.  The same goes for the audiences.  Have it played for an audience that you know, and then let that grow if possible.  That’s as opposed to sitting down and writing a symphony that you have virtually no chance of hearing.  The other piece of advice, in terms of going to school, is that places with very good and very famous music departments — which are not necessarily the same but often are — are worth thinking about seriously.  This is in spite of the fact that when it comes to your specific composition lessons as a composer, there’s a lot you can’t teach anyway.  But there are some things you can teach.  I feel that I learned a lot from Persichetti.  [See my Interview with Vincent Persichetti.]  For instance, there are specific things about how to break your mental set when you’re stuck, or how to try completely different things and certain orchestration things.  There’s certainly a lot that can be taught, and even though a lot of that can be, perhaps, taught in studying privately with a teacher as well as at a school, you benefit tremendously from the exposure to the other people in the school, both in terms of faculty and students.  This is not only in the opportunities for performance that you get that way by being around violinists and pianists and bassoonists.  At Julliard we used to have projects every once in a while in the Composition Department.  Once they rented a silent movie and had three composers write scores for it.  You saw how different the movie could feel with different music.  They did the same thing with a dance once.  They had somebody choreograph a short dance and had three different composers write scores for it.  It’s also the people that are your compatriots in that school who are going to be the next generation in the music world.  I don’t mean this in any negative sense of unfair wheeling and dealing, but it’s just that your people are going to know your stuff and you’re going to know their work, and they’re going to end up being the next conductor of the symphony orchestra.  I was in a group then called “The Open Window” that was a sort of in-between classical rock group, and Jorge Mester became conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, he arranged a commission for each of the three of us to write a piece for our group in the orchestra.  That is how The Fantastic Garden came to be recorded.  Now some people may call that cronyism.  To me it’s not cronyism; Jorge knew my music and I knew his conducting, and he remains one of my absolute favorite conductors to work with. 

BD:    Obviously, if he thought that your music was terrible, he wouldn’t have done it.

PS:    Right, right.  He knew a lot of other composers’ music, too, whom he didn’t invite.  So to me that’s not a matter of cronyism or anything in any negative sense, but in the best sense, which is just that music is a social activity — or at least it was until recently.  With the advent of synthesizers and everything, it is getting to be a little bit different, but if you want your music to be performed by other people, going to a good music school can make a big difference.

schickeleBD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a musical humorist?

PS:    [Sighs]  That’s always more difficult.  I guess I would same the same thing.  I just believe in starting very parochially and letting it grow naturally.  When I started doing humorous concerts I was a student at Julliard, and later when I was teaching there I had no idea of making it a career.  It was just something that I enjoyed doing at Julliard and also out at Aspen in the summer.  It was something that I had been doing for six years by the time a friend and I decided to borrow money to rent Town Hall and put on the first public concert.  I know somebody, for instance, who invented a very funny-looking instrument.  It’s hilarious, and he fitted it out with a mechanism so that you could actually play on it.  He rented Avery Fischer Hall in New York in Lincoln Center.  I was out of town for his recital on it, but apparently it was sort of sad.  Avery Fischer Hall seats 2800 people or so, and there were a couple of hundred there.  I don’t think that’s the way to start.  You start in some smaller way, and if it is successful then you build on it.  People notice that I don’t do any P.D.Q. Bach performing in the summer, and one of the reasons for that is that it keeps it fresher for me during the winter half of the year when I am doing it.  This goes for serious music as well as funny.  The danger is you’re going to get into a rut.  I’ve had serious composers tell me that they were accepting more commissions than they ought to, so that’s just part of the trick.

BD:    Should every serious composer do a P.D.Q. Bach-type piece every four or five years?

PS:    [Laughs]  Well, I don’t know about that.  No, different people have different temperaments.  One of the problems you get sometimes with symphony orchestras is that people feel that a conductor should be able to conduct everything.  I don’t feel that way myself; I think that he should conduct what he likes.  It’s good for a symphony orchestra to have a well-rounded repertoire, but you have guest conductors and assistant conductors, and you ought to try to work that out.  Maybe a conductor doesn’t understand or like a piece, and there are some very star-studded names involved in this kind of a situation.  There are very famous conductors of top notch symphony orchestras that have played pieces that they obviously have no affinity whatsoever for.  But the commission was done and they have to do it.  I don’t think that’s a particularly good service to anybody because the music doesn’t get played with love.  Similarly, even though I like doing both humorous and serious stuff, there are a lot of very good composers who don’t have a funny bone in their bodies!

BD:    Should other people play P.D.Q. Bach without Peter Schickele present?

PS:    It happens all the time, as a matter of fact.  There are, amazingly enough, over seventy-five P.D.Q. Bach works extant now.  I think that may be more than Fauré wrote; at any rate, it’s a real oeuvre.  I was sort of amazed a couple of years ago when I sat down and counted them up.  The way I work that is I have seven different programs that I can do myself with a symphony orchestra, and then one called The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach that’s a self-contained, five-person show.  The pieces that I use on those programs I restrict for my own use, so that I don’t get the rug pulled out from under me, and find out that the week before I’m appearing that the local college played the same program.  But that’s only about half the output.  The other half is published or rented and is available, and there are people who do them all over, particularly certain pieces such as The Seasonings, for instance, an oratorio.

BD:    Are you pleased with the other performances that you’ve heard?

PS:    Some of them I’ve heard, yeah, very much.  I’ve heard both good and bad.  It’s usually quite delightful to see somebody else’s performances, because performances of Beethoven’s Opus 59 #3 can be quite different, but the P.D.Q. Bach pieces in performance are going to be more different because people add their own things.  I saw a videotape of a performance of The Seasonings — I think it was at the University of Delaware.  The Seasonings ends with a fast movement, but then at the very end it goes into one of those big Handelian, slow finales and builds up to this last tremendous chord, a big augmented thirteenth chord.  So at the last chord, they released hundreds of balloons from the ceiling that came down, which I think is a beautiful inspiration.  Another time, I saw a performance of The Stoned Guest, a half-act opera by P.D.Q. Bach in which Don Octave, who’s supposed to be an incompetent nerd who can’t do anything right, ends up stabbing himself instead of the person he’s trying to stab.  There was a particular step on the set that they used, and every time he walked by it, he tripped.  [Laughs]  Every time!  And it became funnier and funnier as he did it.  One of the most striking performances I ever saw was when I got called by somebody who said, “A friend of mine is music director for the Lighthouse in New York, the Association for the Blind, and they’re doing The Stoned Guest.  They would just be so thrilled if you would come to the performance.”  I really did it mostly as a favor to this mutual friend, and I thought this is probably not going to be great.  They’ll just have a piano, but they’d gotten a grant from the union or something, and they had a little chamber orchestra which was conducted by a sighted person.  The cast was all blind, and they were tremendous!  They were so funny, and if anything, they went out of their way to do stage business.  A character that normally just enters from the wings, they had entering from the back of the house, coming down the whole aisle and going up onto the stage.

schickeleBD:    Of course, that’s the perspective!

PS:    Right, right.  And that opera has a dog in it with the cask around the neck for the brandy — the Saint Bernard
and they had a great, wonderful dog.  Going back stage afterwards and congratulating them, they can make jokes that most of the rest of us would feel uncomfortable making.  They were standing around saying, “Yup, even the dog has cataracts.”  [Both laugh]  But they were tremendous.  I would say that from my own standpoint at the very beginning of the performance, I would worry every time a character came downstage — you know, about them falling into the pitbut I very quickly got over that, and then just enjoyed one of the liveliest performances of that piece I’ve ever seen.

BD:    So obviously then, in a P.D.Q. Bach piece, you’re going to allow a lot more tinkering with the music and the stage directions.

PS:    Oh yeah, definitely.  You almost have to.  I don’t think it can be like a Becket play, where he defines every pause and everything.

BD:    Is the Peter Schickele music more like a Becket play, that you define every pause?

PS:    Not as much like Becket.  In spite of all its jazz and folk and rock influence, most of my music is basically fairly straightforward or conventional in the sense that there’s not a lot of improvisation involved.  Basically you play what’s on the page, except that you try to bring something to it.  There’s a personality involved.  It’s no more all there than it is in Mozart or Beethoven, but when you’re dealing with a comic thing, you’re dealing even more exactly with the personality of the presenters.  I get offered a lot of material.  My fan mail often includes, “Here’s an idea for you.  Have you ever thought of...?”  I find very little of it usable, not necessarily because it’s intrinsically bad, but it’s just that a lot of it has to do with style.  Victor Borge might use a joke that I wouldn’t use because he can pull it off in his style, but it isn’t my personality, and vice versa. 

BD:    And probably the good ideas you’ve already come up with in some form or another!

PS:    [Laughs]  Well, that’s not necessarily true.  There are a lot of them out there, and I get good ideas from people.  I don’t mean to say that that’s a blanket statement whatsoever.  The timpanist of the Billings, Montana, Orchestra said that there’s one instrument that P.D.Q. Bach must have written for, the ukulele da gamba.  I’ve always thought that’s a tremendous idea, and one of these days I expect to find a P.D.Q. Bach piece for the ukulele da gamba.  As a matter of fact, some of the best ideas will come from other people.  There used to be a restaurant chain on the east coast called Horn and Hardart.  It was the old automats, and somebody came up to me when I was a student at Julliard and said, “Somebody ought to write a concerto for Horn and Hardart.”  That wasn’t my idea.  Bill Walters, the guy that I work with who’s my sort of combination stage manager and straight man, comes up with some wonderful ideas, too.  I don’t hire anybody.  I don’t have anybody writing material for me, but if somebody comes up with a great idea, I’m not averse to using it as long
as it’s okay with them.  One of the music librarians at Harvard sends out a humorous newsletter as a Christmas card every year, and he came up with one.  So I wrote him back and I said, “I sure would like to use this.”  It was an ambitious series of religious works called Missae In Terrum Frigidum Frigidum: Masses in the Cold, Cold Ground.  [Both laugh]  So I certainly can’t take credit for every idea of P.D.Q. Bach, but as I say, it’s mostly mine.  I don’t have anybody writing material for me, but a lot of this has to do with style.  There’s another piece which is often done called The Sonata for Viola Four Hands.  It’s a keyboard partharpsichord or pianoand then two people facing each other playing one viola.  In the score, it ends with a certain phrase that repeats over and over.  It never resolves, and it’s suggested that the two players go off, fencingduelingwith their bows, or that somebody comes in and stops it.  There are a couple of suggestions in the score and over the years, whenever I hear that somebody has performed that piece, I always ask them how they stopped.  People come up with different ideasa blackout, or the janitor coming our saying that they gotta close up the hall or whatever.  So there are all sorts of possibilities.

BD:    Thank you for both sides of your creativity, and for this chat.

PS:    Well, that was a fun interview.  I enjoyed it.

Composer, musician, author, satirist---Peter Schickele is internationally recognized as one of the most versatile artists in the field of music. His works, now well in excess of 100 for symphony orchestras, choral groups, chamber ensembles, voice, movies and television, have given him "a leading role in the ever-more-prominent school of American composers who unselfconsciously blend all levels of American music" (John Rockwell, The New York Times).

His commissions are numerous and varied, ranging from works for the National Symphony and the Minnesota Opera to compositions for distinguished instrumentalists and singers. Mr. Schickele's SYMPHONY NO. 1 "Songlines" was premiered by the National Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, and has since been played by the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the country. He is the recipient of five Grammies.

Peter Schickele has arranged one of the musical segments for the new Disney animated feature film, "Fantasia 2000." He also created the musical score for the film version of Maurice Sendak's children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are," issued on videocassette along with another Sendak classic "In the Night Kitchen" (Weston Woods), which Mr. Schickele narrates.

Among his many, diverse projects is a weekly, syndicated radio program, Schickele Mix, which has been heard nationwide over Public Radio International since January 1992 and won ASCAP's prestigious Deems Taylor Award.

In his well-known other role as perpetrator of the oeuvre of the now classic P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Schickele is acknowledged as one of the great satirists of the 20th century. In testimony, Vanguard has released 11 albums of the fabled genius's works; six have been released by Telarc. Random House has published eleven editions of The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach (which has also been translated into German, and is available as an audio book from the HighBridge Company); Theodore Presser has printed innumerable scores; and VideoArts International has produced a cassette of P.D.Q. Bach's only full-length opera, The Abduction of Figaro. He tours annually with three programs featuring his own music as well as that of his alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach: Peter Schickele Meets P.D.Q. Bach, Son of P.D.Q. Bach and P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele: The Jekyll & Hyde Tour.

In the course of his career Schickele has also created music for four feature films, among them the prize-winning "Silent Running," as well as for documentaries, television commercials, several "Sesame Street" segments and an underground movie that he has never seen in its finished state. He was also one of the composer/lyricists for "Oh, Calcutta," and has arranged for Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other folk singers.

Peter Schickele was born in Ames, Iowa, and brought up in Washington, D.C. and Fargo, North Dakota. Schickele and his wife, the poet Susan Sindall, reside in New York City and at an upstate hideaway where he concentrates on composing. His son and daughter are involved in various alternative rock groups, both as composers and performers.

Mr. Schickele's personal appearances are booked by ICM Artists, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019, (212) 556-6876.

For more information about Peter Schickele or P.D.Q. Bach, please visit

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on February 15, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 2000.  It was also used on WNUR in 2005.  A copy of the unedited audio has been placed in the Oral History American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.