P.D.Q. Bach, A Little Nightmare Music

Album of the Week, June 8, 2024

No one can execute perfectly, every time, along the arc of a career. Shostakovich had Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which got him exiled. Mariah Carey had Glitter and Charmbracelet. And Peter Schickele had A Little Nightmare Music. It’s not that this, his last album for Vanguard Records, was bad, exactly; it’s just that the jokes don’t land.

Schickele was in a different place by 1983 when this album was released. The music was recorded in the studio, so didn’t have any “punch” from the audience laughing. Also, longtime collaborator and “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante is not to be found on the recording. I used to wonder \ if he had died, but he was still performing later in 1983; a falling out? At any rate, his absence is felt.

(Ferrante would, in fact, pass away four years later, on May 28, 1987, so perhaps he was simply not well enough to record. I always find it sad that I have to search for that newspaper article; if any countertenor deserves a Wikipedia page, it’s him. Hmm…)

At any rate, hot on the heels of the 1979 Broadway production of Amadeus (and actually anticipating the theatrical release of the movie adaptation by a few months), which clearly inspired the cover art, we have “A Little Nightmare Music” (S.35), representing a purported actual nightmare of P.D.Q. Bach. In the dream, he was a servant at a meeting between Mozart, Salieri, and the mysterious writer Peter Schlafer, who appears by his dress to have come from another century, “perhaps the twentieth.” Schlafer irritates Salieri by casting aspersions on his compositional career and unfavorably comparing him to Mozart, and Salieri is finally enraged enough to pour poison into Schlafer’s wine—only to watch horrified as the buffoonish P.D.Q. trips and accidentally gives the poisoned wine to Mozart instead. There are recriminations and violence all around.

The actual work is composed almost entirely of the actual “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” with vocal lines for Salieri (James Billings, baritone) and Schlafer (Bruce Ford, tenor) above. The lines are occasionally funny, but the burden of the plot and the lack of swerves into the rich nonsense that characterized some of the earlier P.D.Q. outings make it one of the lesser numbers in the Schickele catalog.

Which is a shame, because “Octoot” (S. 8) is a genuine riot. Written for a woodwind octet, the writing is sharp and funny, and Schickele brings back some of the brilliant instrumentation for which his best P.D.Q. numbers were famous. The writing for double reeds without the use of the oboes in the fourth movement “Chanson: ‘Tout l’année, hey, hey, hey” brings back a favorite P.D.Q. weird timbre, as does the requirement for the first bassoonist to play her reed and bocal alone and the second bassoonist to play the last two joints of the instrument by itself. And if you can get through the final movement, “Tout à coup le bout,” without reciting “Shave and a haircut” alongside the instrumentalists, you’re a better man than I am (Gunga Din).

The final composition, “Royal Firewater Musick” (S. 1/5), is five movements of more ambitious writing and orchestration. The first, “Long, neat, long,” seems as though it’s destined to play on indefinitely into the sunset, as what starts out as a nifty bit of imitative writing for the winds goes off the rails in its reprise, finally requiring a conductorial intervention to land. The “March on the rocks” is a more straightforward number, as is the “Minuet with a twist” (the twist is a massive blow on the gran cassa). The “Sarabande straight up” is an unexpectedly sweet melancholic bit of writing, or at least it would be without the solo parts for double reeds without the encumbrance of oboes or bassoons. In “One for the road” we find a rare bit of orchestral writing for ten wine bottlists, playing an assortment of sizes of wine bottles (and occasionally de-tuning the instruments). There is some virtuoso writing for the bottlists between all the other bits, including quotations from “Aloha ‘Oe” and additional solo parts for duck call. It’s a good choice to close the record, and the Vanguard chapter of P.D.Q. Bach.

Schickele would continue to record P.D.Q. Bach records after a six year hiatus, signing with the Telarc label and releasing six more studio albums, two compilations, and a live recording of newly discovered P.D.Q. music in the years between 1989 and 2007. Some of the individual works along the way were absolutely brilliant (“Einstein on the Fritz,” “Four Folk Song Upsettings,” “Lip My Reeds,” and Schickele’s own “Last Tango in Bayreuth,” which I think highly enough of to have put it on a mix years ago,) but some of the albums were unlistenable due to the run-amuck sketches that fight for time with the compositions (I’m lookin’ at you, WTWP: Classical Talkety-Talk Radio, though I have to admit that the central conceit, a relentlessly upbeat classical music station whose programming is literally WTWP, “wall to wall Pachelbel,” is kind of brilliant).

I remain disappointed that I never got to perform in one of Schickele’s performances; I would have given anything to get a group together to work on the “Missa Hilarious” or “Consort of Choral Christmas Carols,” or “The Art of the Ground Round.” It’s too late to collaborate with the man himself, who passed away on January 16, 2024, but I have the sheet music for some of his works somewhere in my basement. Hmmm…

You can listen to this week’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach

Album of the Week, June 1, 2024

I meant for there to be a trilogy of P.D.Q. Bach reviews and knew that I would come back to the last record in my collection when the time was right. Now, five months later, having finished the Coltrane series, I return to my P.D.Q. Bach records only to find that they’ve multiplied in the interim. So the series becomes a quartet. I’m not sad about it, though, because Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach was the first of the great(?) composer’s albums I ever heard, at the tender age of about six or seven.

Our family affinity for this particular album was almost certainly due to the musical contents: a full album of choral music. My background in choral music was seemingly predestined, since my parents were both directing church choirs when they met at a music and worship conference at Montreat, and I ended up singing in the church choir alongside them by the time I was in high school. So we were primed for the utter silliness of the P.D.Q. musical lens applied to the latent silliness that lurked beneath the seriousness of sacred choral music.

We were also primed for the visual humor on the jacket. The “portrait,” shown in the garbage outside a New York City restaurant from which it was “rescued,” is of course the same image used on The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach, published the year before. And the back jacket photo, showing Schickele demonstrating how to play organ music on the piano, with his bare toes performing the pedal notes on the keyboard, is unforgettable. I should know; I’ve been trying to forget it for over 40 years.

As he did for many of the 1970s P.D.Q. albums, discoverer and impresario Peter Schickele introduces each of the works in turn, beginning with the Missa Hilarious (S. N2O). The mass begins, as is traditional, with a Kyrie, though here sung in Pig Latin as “Yriekay.” The music begins as a parody of baroque mass settings, but following the Christe, the reprise of the Kyrie is sung as a parody of “K-k-k-Katy.”

The “Gloria,” sung as a duet—or maybe more accurately, a hand-off—between basso blotto Harris Poor and bargain counter-tenor John Ferrante incorporates bits of West Side Story and “Laugh-In” in one neat little bundle. It leads into the “Credo,” which begins as a fugue that progresses from Credo to Cre-so to Cre-le to Cre-fa as the fugue subject progresses around the scale. There follows a very funny, very weird solo by Ferrante, accompanied by the “corrugahorn,” a piece of corrugated tubing that serves as an odd wind instrument. As this is the only substantial text in the piece, I reproduce it here: “Et in spirito inner sanctum, et in spirit gum inner sanc-Tums, et in Spiro Agnew.”

The “Sanctus” features an extended introduction on odd reeds and a parody of the “Hare Krishna” from Hair, with a little “ho-jo-to-yo” thrown in. To say there is something for everyone in this movement is an understatement. Maybe it’s more accurate to say there’s at least one thing in this movement for everyone to grimace at. It’s also the only movement that has no significant part for the chorus.

I blame the final movement of the Missa, “Angus Dei,” for my tendency even still to misspell the Agnus Dei in normal masses. But the work’s cockeyed take on the text, sung to a variation of the “Hallelujah Chorus”—“Angus Dei! Angus Dei! She looks so nice just standing there/All covered with the dew! Angus Dei! Angus Dei! She’s the prettiest cow I’ve ever seen and I have seen a few!”—redefines “commitment to the bit.” Add in interpolations of the Batman theme and you have something that still brings me almost to tears laughing. Ultimately it’s no wonder that, as Schickele claims during the introduction, that not only was the Missa Hilarious the reason for P.D.Q.’s excommunication, but that he became the only composer to have all his works placed on the Index by the Vatican.

Eine Kleine Nichtmusik” is the one work on the album for which Schickele claims compositional credit. A purely orchestral pastiche, it incorporates so many different classical works over top (literally—look at the score in the linked video above) Mozart’s classic work that it can become a party game of “Name That Sample.”

The “Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments” (S. 99999999) is something of a retread from an earlier P.D.Q. recording, Report from Hoople: P.D.Q. Bach on the Air. However, where the earlier recording leaned heavily on tape manipulation and sound effects to achieve the humor, here Schickele wisely lets the woodwinds and brass fight it out among themselves.

The record closes with something of a family favorite, “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols” (S. 359). The unaccompanied performance by Duh Brooklyn Boys Chorus of “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John,” “O Little Town of Hackensack,” and “Good King Kong Looked Out” was among the first choral works I could sing with from beginning to end from memory, much to my parents’ chagrin. (It helped that I really did have an Uncle John.)

For a choral singer, Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach gives the listener something to aspire to, if only that something is making it stop. But in all seriousness, I think I could still sing most of the parts of the album by heart, and to my ear it’s one of the most consistently funny recordings in his oeuvre. Next week we’ll get a listen to the end of Schickele’s (and P.D.Q.’s) run on Vanguard Records, with another work of great plagiarism composition from the last and oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, An Hysteric Return: P.D.Q. Bach at Carnegie Hall

Bonus Album of the Week, week of February 3, 2024

When I last wrote about Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach, I didn’t write very much about the music. It’s hard to write about funny stuff, it turns out! And P.D.Q. Bach was solidly in that camp; as Schickele once said, where other composers wrote in the musica seria tradition, P.D.Q. Bach wrote in the musica funnia. This album proves that, maybe even more dramatically than the debut record.

Schickele (born in 1935) had been writing parodic music in the Baroque vein since he was a teenager; his earliest work, the “Sanka” Cantata, was recorded with his brother David in 1954, when he was just 19. The first P.D.Q. Bach concert recording, reviewed last week, happened when Schickele was 30, at which point a good part of the musical identity of the composer had been established: familiar or familiar-sounding themes, upended by comic settings that never quite seemed to do the expected thing, or by the equivalent of orchestral slapstick (deliberately wrong notes, jarring chords, the orchestra losing its place), or by some of the many unique instruments that Schickele invented: the tromboon, the double-reed slide music stand, the windbreaker. There was even the omnipresent “bargain counter tenor,” John Ferrante.

But for my money, P.D.Q. Bach didn’t become legendary until the publication of his first works for chorus. That may be because the P.D.Q. album my family owned, A Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach, begins and ends with choral works (the “Missa Hilarious” and “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols”). Or it may be because the additional dimension of demented libretti causes ganglions in the left brain to giggle. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the Okay Chorale on the first track of An Hysteric Return is cause for rejoicing.

The chorus is here to perform P.D.Q.’s oratorio The Seasonings (S. 1/2 tsp.). Like the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” from the debut album, the oratorio features John Ferrante, whose recitatives set up the plot, such as it is, of the oratorio, and drive the encounters with soloists Lorna Haywood, Marlena Kleinman and William Woolf. The oratorio is full of groaning puns that are the equivalent of baroque “dad jokes” — “Open sesame seeds,” “Bide thy thyme,” “Tarragon of virtue it is full.” But the chorus steals the show on the slow movement “By the leeks of Babylon” and in the finale, “To curry favor, favor curry.”

As on the first album, Schickele takes the opportunity to “slip a little something of my own on… which I also wrote,” and as with his Quodlibet, the “Unbegun” Symphony is a collection of famous themes, expertly woven together in indescribably funny ways. To this day, I can’t hear the theme of Brahms’ second symphony without overlaying “Beautiful Dreamer” on it… or expecting it to segue into “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”

The concert concludes with the “Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons” (S. 66), a work which substantially expands the concert repertoire for bagpipes while attempting to establish the bicycle (here used to power a siren—the faster the performer pedals, the higher the pitch) or the balloons as viable solo instruments, an effort that is a complete and utter failure. As comedy instruments, though, they’re pure gold, and the ending, featuring three balloons exhausting their air through pitch pipes in a major chord, is worth the price of admission over and over again.

With An Hysteric Return, Schickele established that P.D.Q.’s hilarity wasn’t just an interesting accident, but a formula that could reliably deliver laugh after laugh. He went on to prove this in a series of nine additional albums for Vanguard records, some of which were absolutely hysterical (see: Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach) and some of which were less so (for my money, Music You Can’t Get Out of Your Head risks riding the joke too long). But he still had enough gas in the tank for at least one more masterpiece, and we’ll hear it the next time this bonus feature returns.

You can listen to this album here:

Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?)

Bonus Album of the Week, January 21, 2024

When I read this week that Peter Schickele had died at the age of 88, it felt like a part of my childhood had been ended. My parents had the Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach album which we listened to incessantly, and it became part of my formative education in comedy, alongside records from the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby (I know, I know). We went to see Schickele perform with the Norfolk Symphony in Chrysler Hall sometime in the late 1980s. I had taken the PSAT earlier that day, and felt a little woozy watching the concert from the balcony; came home and realized I was running a 103º fever — so I don’t have clear memories of the performance. What I do remember is that it was slapstick funny, clever funny, and sometimes both at once.

That holds true for most of Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach recordings, and maybe especially for the first two. Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?) was recorded live in concert at Town Hall in New York, with a chamber orchestra under the direction of Jorge Mester. The program consists of three works from the high flowering of P.D.Q.’s dubious genius; in addition, Schickele notes in the hilarious introduction to the second side, “I convinced them to let me put something of my own on.”

The “Concerto for Horn and Hardart (S.27)” could be the quintessential P.D.Q. orchestral work: suspiciously familiar themes, obnoxious instruments, odd harmonizations, “mistakes” from the orchestra (I have always laughed uproariously that the broken cadenza from the strings in the first movement that is set right by the conductor yelling “One, two, three, four!”). By contrast, the “Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn (S. 53,162)” provides the added dimension of comic vocal performance, courtesy of the late lamented “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante and some truly inspired mangled writing (“Oh, ye gods! Who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running, running, running, knows…”)

Schickele’s “Quodlibet for Small Orchestra” exploits the brilliant professor’s talent for comic juxtaposition of familiar themes in unfamiliar ways. Finally, the “Sinfonia Concertante (S.98.6)” derives much of its humor from the weird array of instruments on stage; as Schickele observes, the bagpipes present a serious “problem of balance which P.D.Q. made no attempt whatsoever to resolve,” while the lute was so quiet that “you can’t hear it if there’s another instrument in the room with it, regardless of whether it’s playing or not.” The work is notable for the first appearance of the double-reed slide music stand, pictured below:

All in all, the record is a great intro to the lunacy that is P.D.Q. Bach and a subtle testament to the genius of his “discoverer,” Peter Schickele. I have a few more of the original records in my collection that we’ll spin in the coming days.

You can listen to this album here: