Notes 62.2 (2005) 322-353
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"The Initial Plunge," "The Soused Period," and "Contrition"?:
Moving Towards a Style of Peter Schickele's Funny Music In His P.D.Q. Bach Works
After nearly forty years of "discovery" it truly is no secret that Peter Schickele is still composing the works of the fictional composer P.D.Q. Bach. By composing this humorous music, he carves his own niche as a musical comedian while also maintaining the other part of his career as a "serious" composer. An interview of 1974 with Peter Schickele provides a historical snapshot of his techniques of composing the music of P.D.Q. Bach.1 We learn that he prefers to parody music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of the form and pattern of the pieces. He blends well-known motives, like "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits," with baroque and classical sounding phrases, and adds familiar classical and popular themes as quotations. Schickele composes music to make the performer seem lost in a complicated passage, and to be playing wrong notes and strange sounds. Another technique he uses is to create instruments out of unusual items and materials such as bicycles and music stands. The jokes present in the P.D.Q. Bach music may be written for a musically sophisticated audience, but they have a wide appeal. The musical jokes can range from witty—with tricks played on an established form or style—to slapstick, and from popular to obscure. A couple of questions come to mind: "Has Peter Schickele always told similar jokes in his P.D.Q. Bach music?" And, "Does P.D.Q. Bach's musical comedy have early, middle, and late periods?"2 [End Page 322]
The goal of this article is to introduce a different way of thinking about the P.D.Q. Bach music, and to intimate that it could, indeed, have early, middle, and late periods. This will be accomplished using the following methods: reviewing existing literature on humor in music for types and categories of musical humor, applying these categories to the P.D.Q. Bach music in a brief taxonomical discussion using a wide chronological range of representative works, and using this discussion to closely analyze and compare two vocal and two instrumental pieces. This approach will demonstrate how the musical jokes are treated, and will establish a framework for more comprehensive examination of comic stylistic trends of the P.D.Q. Bach music over time.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, this article will not address certain aspects related to this topic. As is well recognized, P.D.Q. Bach is not simply a pen name under which Peter Schickele writes comic music. P.D.Q. Bach can also be defined as an institution in a sense that Schickele has created a theatrical and performing tradition with the P.D.Q. Bach concerts, as well as his alter ego "Professor Peter Schickele," member of the fictional Department of Music Pathology, University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Because this study is devoted particularly to the style of jokes found in music, it will focus on the music of P.D.Q. Bach and not the theatrical elements of a P.D.Q. Bach concert, except as they are prescribed in a score. Nor will this study delve into descriptions of humor in music, or explain why a joke in a P.D.Q. Bach piece is funny. Existing literature on the psychology of musical humor explains this quite well.3 Furthermore, one does not need to understand the causes of psychological and emotional effects that music may have for a listener in order to understand its purely technical aspects. Doing so quickly becomes an exercise in pedantry, as the reader will become lost in tangential discussions in an attempt to see the comic forms and structures inherent within the music.4 What will be addressed here is how the P.D.Q. Bach music can...