In March we brought you the story of how the Fargo Civic Opera got its start. That segment ended with the following paragraph: “By 1951, the symphony had grown to 64 members: 29 college students, 16 teenagers, 9 music teachers, 5 housewives, 3 office workers, and 2 professional musicians. The youngest member was 14 year-old David George Schickele on violin. His 15-year-old, bassoon-playing brother, Peter, later became known as P.D.Q. Ba
ch – Johann Sebastian’s last and least offspring, rumored to be ‘illegitimate, or, even better, an imposter.’ But that’s a story for another day. . .”
Well, today is the day. Yesterday was Peter Schickele’s birthday. He was born in 1935 in Ames, Iowa, and grew up in Washington, D.C. and also in Fargo. He says that when he graduated from Swarthmore in 1957, he was the one and only music major. By then, he had already composed and conducted four works for orchestra, a number of songs, and many pieces of chamber music.
Schickele moved on to Juilliard School of Music and, soon after, was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation to compose music for Los Angeles high schools. After that, he taught at Juilliard, but in 1965 he gave up teaching to become a freelance composer and performer.
It’s impossible to list all of Schickele’s accomplishments since then. In the course of his career, he’s has created innumerable music compositions, scored soundtracks for feature films, been a guest on Prairie Home Companion, and yes . . . has several times been a guest on Sesame Street.
The overall word for Schickele would probably be “versatile.” His satirical side surfaces in the form of P.D.Q. Bach, who was born in 1742 and died in 1807. Then there’s Professor Schickele, the world’s foremost expert on the life and music of P.D.Q. Bach.
The following is Peter Schickele’s description of Professor Schickele and his pivotal discovery of P.D.Q. Bach:
“In 1954 Professor Peter Schickele, rummaging around a Bavarian castle in search of rare musical gems, happened instead upon a piece of manuscript being employed as a strainer in the caretaker’s percolator. This turned out to be the “Sanka” Cantata by one P.D.Q. Bach. A cursory examination of the music immediately revealed the reason for the atrocious taste of the coffee; and when the work was finally performed at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, the Professor realized too late that he had released a monster on the musical world.
“Unable to restrain himself, and with the misguided support of the U. of S.N.D. at H. and otherwise reputable recording and publishing companies, Prof. Schickele has since discovered more than four score of P.D.Q. Bach scores, each one more jaw-dropping than the last, each one another brick in the wall which will someday seal the doom of Musical Culture.
“The conspiracy of silence that has surrounded P.D.Q. Bach...for two centuries began with his own parents. He was the last and the least of the great Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children, and he was certainly the oddest. His father ignored him completely, setting an example for the rest of the family (and indeed for posterity), with the result that P.D.Q. was virtually unknown during his own lifetime; in fact, the more he wrote, the more unknown he became.
He finally attained total obscurity at the time of his death, and his musical output would probably have followed him into oblivion had it not been for the zealous efforts of Prof. Schickele. These efforts have even extended themselves to mastering some of the rather unusual instruments for which P.D.Q. liked to compose, such as the left-handed sewer flute, the windbreaker, and the bicycle.”
Again, those were the words of Peter Schickele, one of North Dakota’s favorite sons.
Source: The Peter Schickele Web Site.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm