At one point in his long career, Peter Schickele fretted that he was too much typecast as his humorous alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach, and that he wouldn’t be taken seriously for his regular classical compositions. Even so, Schickele acknowledged it was the popularity of his humorous concerts with P.D.Q. Bach that gave him the time and wherewithall to pursue his more serious composing career.
“Ultimately, I consider myself very lucky because I’ve made a nice living doing what I want to do. It’s left me plenty of time to write non-P.D.Q. Bach pieces,” Schickele says in a phone interview from his upper West Side home in Manhattan. He says he has always had a multi-faceted career that involves wearing several hats. Most recently he was host and producer of “Schickele Mix,” on WNYC-FM in New York City and an NPR syndicated program.
His most recent album is a 2007 release for the Cleveland-based Telarc label, a live recording, “The Jekyll & Hyde Tour.” Schickele and his small group will perform selections from “Jekyll & Hyde Tour” as well as newer material concerning the signs of the Zodiac on Tuesday, April 13, at McCarter Theater.
“I have two different programs with the small group, and since we’ve already done the other one at McCarter, we’ll be doing the newer one there this time,” Schickele says. He suddenly recalls that his first concert with a small group at McCarter was in the early 1970s. Prior to that he toured as P.D.Q. Bach with a large orchestra, until the economics of touring with so many musicians became impractical.
Schickele, raised in Iowa and Fargo, North Dakota, was the only music major in his class at Swarthmore College. He got his masters in composition from the Juilliard School in Manhattan in the early ’60s. He then spent the first half of that decade teaching at Juilliard. P.D.Q. Bach, his fictional character, made his debut at Town Hall in 1965, in a concert recorded by Vanguard Records, which then had offices on West 23rd Street. Vanguard, the legendary, wide-ranging folk, blues, and classical label, was owned by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon and is now owned by Lawrence Welk’s sons and based in California.
Schickele had no expectations that the character of P.D.Q. Bach, inspired in part by the works of humorist Spike Jones, would ever develop into a career. “In ’65 when we did the first public concert and Vanguard recorded it, both the concert and the recording were very well received,” he says. “And since I wanted to be free to go on the road with P.D.Q. Bach, I quit my teaching job at Juilliard, not realizing it was going to take about seven years to learn how to tour and come out ahead financially. At first I toured with a 22-piece orchestra. That turned out to be a great way to lose money.”
By the end of 1969, he started doing a show as a guest soloist with various symphony orchestras around the country. In the early ’70s he put together a small show called “The Intimate P.D.Q. Bach.”
He has been touring with the smaller four-person concerts ever since, “in one form or another, except during part of the 1990’s when I had the chance to do the radio show, Schickele Mix, on WNYC. When the money for that dried up, I was beginning to want to get back on the road again with P.D.Q. Bach.” He spends half of the year touring with P.D.Q. Bach and the other half at home, composing. This arrangements has allowed him sufficient time to pursue his serious composing career.
Schickele, now 74, reveals that neither of his parents was a professional musician but both were avid fans of classical and jazz music. His mother played a little piano, says. His father was an agricultural economist for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and his mother was a physicist who taught physics. “They were both huge music fans and had a very sophisticated record collection. My mother actually took up string bass and learned to play it for the community orchestra in Fargo for a while,” he says, noting his parents also lived in Rome for 11 years. Both he and his brother, a former film maker, played in the Fargo Community Orchestra. He played bassoon while his brother played violin.
“I consider Fargo to be my hometown, because that’s where I spent my teenage years and that’s where I got seriously interested in music,” he says. He was born in Ames, Iowa, and his family moved to Fargo when he was 12.
His discography with P.D.Q. Bach, beginning in 1965, includes several albums for Vanguard Records and more recently another seven releases on Telarc Records. When four of the Telarc albums received Grammy Awards, Schickele says, “that was a bit of frosting on the cake.”
He still recalls the excitement he felt when he first moved to New York City in 1957 from suburban Philadelphia to attend Juilliard. “It wasn’t just New York, it was coming to Juilliard, so that meant the best players around would be playing your pieces.”
At the April 13 concert at McCarter Schickele will be accompanied by soprano vocalist Michele Eaton, tenor vocalist Brian Dougherty, Margaret Kampmeier on piano, and stage manager William Walters. Schickele will be doing some piano playing as well. “The program is very varied. The major piece on the program is called ‘Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs.’ They are songs based on the signs of the zodiac. Then there are some rounds and we close out with some ’50s style rock ‘n’ roll.”
At previous P.D.Q. Bach shows that I’ve been to, including one in the early ’90s at McCarter, the mad professor would come running in from the back of the theater and slide on stage on his belly. He laughs at my reminiscence. “Those days are over. I’m 74 now, so there’s no more sliding on stage from the back of the theater or coming down on to the stage from a rope,” he says.
Schickele acknowledges one cannot easily make fun of, or satirize, a form of art one doesn’t know much about. “That whole thing about classical and orchestral musicians being stuffy is overblown. Many of these musicians love to tell jokes and one of the reasons the symphonies tend to be cooperative with P.D.Q. Bach is because it’s done out of love.
“I’m not putting the music down; it’s the music I love, so in general, when I’m working with a symphony, the musicians are willing to do anything I ask of them, within reason,” he adds, noting that the late humorist Spike Jones similarly mimicked the big bands that he loved. “With the exception of politics, most satirists make fun of what they like, not what they don’t like. So when rock ‘n’ roll came along, Spike Jones said he hated it, and I found he couldn’t do good takeoffs on rock ‘n’ roll. If you don’t have a good understanding of what you’re doing, it usually doesn’t work out very well.”
Due in part to his experiences at Swarthmore, the Fargo Community Orchestra, and the fact that the town of Fargo actively brought in symphony orchestras on tour, as well as Spike Jones’ road shows, Schickele developed into the person he is today: humorist, comedy writer, and performer as well as a serious composer of classical music for symphony orchestra.
“What I thought would last five years or so, is going on over 45 years now. In terms of finances, it’s a primary career, that’s what has made most of my living,” Schickele says of his P.D.Q. Bach character. “I still continue to tour, even though in terms of composition my focus is more on the non-funny stuff at the moment,” he says. “It’s true that it would be nice if more people knew my serious music, but you can’t order those things. I’m very fortunate a lot of my serious music has been recorded; most of it is published, and it gets performed a lot, so it would be small-hearted to complain.”
Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesday, April 13, 8 p.m. “What’s Your Sign” tour includes classical music with a twist of humor. $39 to $50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.