Today is the supposed birthday of P. D. Q. Bach (1742), a fictitious composer invented by “professor” Peter Schickele. Schickele developed a five-decade-long career, performing the “discovered” works of the “only forgotten son” of the Bach family. Schickele’s music combines parodies of musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music, and some slapstick comedy. The name “P. D. Q.” is a parody of the three-part names given to some members of the Bach family that are commonly reduced to initials, such as C. P. E., for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. PDQ is, of course, an initialism for “pretty damned quick.”
According to Schikele, P. D. Q. Bach was born in Leipzig on March 31 (J.S. Bach’s actual birth date), the son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach; the twenty-first of Johann’s twenty children. He died May 5, 1807, though his birth and death years are often listed on album literature in reverse, as “(1807–1742)”. According to Schickele, P. D. Q. “possessed the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.”
Schickele began working on the character while studying at the Aspen Music Festival and School and at Juilliard, and has performed a variety of P. D. Q. Bach shows over the years. The Village Voice mentions the juxtaposition of collage, bitonality, musical satire, and orchestral surrealism in a ” “bizarre melodic stream of consciousness.” “In P.D.Q. Bach he has single-handedly mapped a musical universe that everyone knew was there and no one else had the guts (not simply the bad taste) to explore.” In fact, it is clear the Shickele is an accomplished musician, theorist, and composer to people with a decent background in music.
Schickele’s works attributed to P. D. Q. Bach often incorporate comical rearrangements of well-known works of other composers. The works use instruments not normally used in orchestras, such as the bagpipes, slide whistle, kazoo, and fictional or experimental instruments such as the pastaphone (made of uncooked manicotti), tromboon, hardart, lasso d’amore, and left-handed sewer flute.
There is often a startling juxtaposition of styles within a single P. D. Q. Bach piece. The Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz, which alludes to Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach, provides an example. The underlying music is J.S. Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, but at double the normal speed, with each phrase repeated interminably in a minimalist manner that parodies Glass’s. On top of this structure is added everything from jazz phrases to snoring to heavily-harmonized versions of Three Blind Mice to the chanting of a meaningless phrase (“Koy Hotsy-Totsy,” alluding to the art film Koyaanisqatsi for which Glass wrote the score). Through all these mutilations, the piece never deviates from Bach’s original harmonic structure.
The humor in P. D. Q. Bach music often derives from violation of audience expectations, such as repeating a tune more than the usual number of times, resolving a musical chord later than usual or not at all, unusual key changes, excessive dissonance, or sudden switches from high art to low art. Further humor is obtained by replacing parts of certain classical pieces with similar common songs, such as the opening of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with “Beautiful Dreamer”, or rewriting Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as the 1712 Overture, with Yankee Doodle replacing Tchaikovsky’s melody, and Pop Goes the Weasel replacing La Marsellaise.
Schickele divides P. D. Q. Bach’s fictional musical output into three periods: the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition. During the Initial Plunge, P. D. Q. Bach wrote the Traumerei for solo piano, an Echo Sonata for “two unfriendly groups of instruments”, and a Gross Concerto for Divers Flutes, two Trumpets, and Strings. During the Soused (or Brown-Bag) Period, P. D. Q. Bach wrote a Concerto for Horn & Hardart, a Sinfonia Concertante, a Pervertimento for Bicycle, Bagpipes, and Balloons, a Serenude, a Perückenstück (literally German for “Hairpiece”), a Suite from The Civilian Barber (spoofing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville), a Schleptet in E-flat major, the half-act opera The Stoned Guest (the character of “The Stone Guest” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), a Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra, Erotica Variations (Beethoven’s Eroica Variations), Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, an opera in one unnatural act (Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), The Art of the Ground Round (Bach’s The Art of Fugue), a Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra, and a Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion.
During the Contrition Period, P. D. Q. Bach wrote the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn (Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, etc.), the oratorio The Seasonings (Haydn’s The Seasons), Diverse Ayres on Sundrie Notions, a Sonata for Viola Four Hands, the chorale prelude Should, a Notebook for Betty Sue Bach (Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”), the Toot Suite, the Grossest Fugue (Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge), a Fanfare for the Common Cold (Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man) and the canine cantata Wachet Arf! (Bach’s Wachet auf).
A final work is the mock religious work Missa Hilarious (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) (Schickele no. N2O – the chemical formula of nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”).
P.D.Q sometimes uses the tromboon, a musical instrument made up of the reed and bocal of a bassoon, attached to the body of a trombone in place of the trombone’s leadpipe. It combines the sound of double reeds and the slide for a distinctive and unusual instrument (mostly unplayable). The name of the instrument is a portmanteau of “trombone” and “bassoon”. The sound quality of the instrument is best described as comical and loud. The tromboon was developed by Peter Schickele, a skilled bassoonist himself, and featured in some of his live concert and recorded performances. Schickele called it “a hybrid – that’s the nicer word – constructed from the parts of a bassoon and a trombone; it has all the disadvantages of both” (the difficulties of playing a slide instrument and a double reed). This instrument is called for in the scores of P. D. Q. Bach’s oratorio The Seasonings, as well as the Serenude (for devious instruments) and Shepherd on the Rocks, With a Twist. The tromboon (although it was not called such) was independently conceived of by the French composer Gérard Grisey, who used it as a sound effect in his 1975 work Partiels. It is unclear whether either Schickele or Grisey were aware of each other’s untraditional use of the trombone. It’s not surprising that the “instruments” was independently invented twice given that the bocal of a bassoon fits neatly into a trombone mouthpiece aperture.
Here’s Shickele playing the part of announcer for a comic rendition of Beethoven’s 5th.
For PDQ Bach’s birthday here’s Quarkkeulchen – a specialty fried dumpling from Saxony (PDQ’s birthplace), made with potatoes and quark (curds), sprinkled with cinnamon and served with apple sauce. The combination of ingredients has the “flavor” of PDQ’s music of strange combinations.
Quark is also known as Speisequark, Topfkäse, Weisskäse, Matz, Bibeleskäse, Lukeleskäs, Topfen, Klatschkäse, and Sibbkäs. The word quark means “curd” or “cheese curd.” It is a cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk. The milk is curdled through the addition of a bacteria. The curdled milk is stored at 70°F (22°C) for 24 hours to allow the milk protein to thicken. Then the liquid (whey) is drained through the use of a mechanical separator. The remaining solid is quark. Depending on the desired fat content and consistency of the final quark, producers then mix cream back in.
Quark is basically concentrated milk. It is high in protein, calcium, and phosphate. It is also used extensively in both cooking and baking throughout Germany. It accounts for half of the total cheese consumption in Germany.
1 lb (500g) potatoes, peeled and boiled
1 lb (500g) quark
1¼ cup flour
oil or butter
Mash the potatoes. Add the quark, egg, and flour and mix to form a moist dough. If the dough is too wet to hold together, add a little bit more flour.
With floured hands, form flat, thick pancakes.
In a frying pan, heat the oil or butter. Fry the Quarkkeulchen until golden brown. Before serving, sprinkle each Quarkkeulchen with sugar and cinnamon. Serve with apple sauce.