Many noted novelists have written books using more than one name as the author for different books, but only one known composer has employed this practice for his or her recorded compositions.
Peter Schickele had his musical compositions published under his own name, and he also composed music that he attributed to his alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach. A number of musicians have composed music under a name other than their given name, including Jacob Gershowitz as George Gershwin, Israel Beilin as Irving Berlin, Robert Zimmerman as Bob Dylan and Philip Heseltine as Peter Warlock — but for all of the music that they composed, they always used the same name.
According to Schickele, Bach was born on April 1, 1742, in Leipzig, Germany, but in reality, he was conceived on Aug. 30, 1953, in the Oak Grove area of Fargo, in the home of Sigvald Thompson, who was Schickele’s composition teacher and the conductor of the Fargo-Moorhead Community Orchestra.
At Thompson’s home, the two Schickele brothers, Peter and David, along with their close friend, Ernest Lloyd, Thompson’s stepson, listened to a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” The three talented young musicians then adapted their own score, and playing different instruments, they made tapes of their new composition.
A week later, they returned and overdubbed the tapes to produce a master tape, which they labeled the "Sanka Cantata." In deciding who they should credit for the composition, they came up with the name P.D.Q. Bach. For the remainder of his time at Fargo Central High School, his four years at Swarthmore and his start at Julliard, Schickele remained a serious student of music composition.
However, the creation of music by P.D.Q. Bach remained with him the whole time, and at a special college concert at Julliard in 1959, he played some of Bach’s compositions for the first time to students and administrators. Because of the popularity of that performance, Schickele’s Bach concerts became an annual event, and in 1965, they were moved to the Town Hall in New York City, where they became open to the public. That first concert was recorded by Vanguard Records and, for the first time, listeners all across the nation could experience the “wretched music” composed by P.D.Q.
Along with his annual concerts, Schickele also recorded Bach albums in 1966 and 1967, and his fan base grew. In order to satisfy concert requests, Schickele resigned from his teaching position at Julliard in 1967. The public’s demand for more works by Bach exceeded Schickele’s expectations, much like what happened to director George Lucas with his first "Star Wars" movies. Schickele was forced to expand the narrative about Bach just as Lucas expanded the stories about the Skywalker family.
According to Schickele, he was a professor of musical pathology at the fictitious University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, when he decided to travel “to Bavaria in search of musical curiosities.” At a museum, he discovered an original manuscript of P.D.Q. that was being used as a coffee filter by the caretaker. Schickele did not know who this Bach was, because all historical references of Johann Sebastian Bach listed 20 children, none of whom were named P.D.Q. Bach.
This triggered Schickele’s curiosity, and through his quests, Schickele uncovered more P.D.Q. compositions in monasteries, attics, landfills and safes. He also discovered one composition in the pocket of Davy Crockett’s uniform at the Alamo. Even though the compositions were horrible, and many portions of them were plagiarized, Schickele, “through a serious lapse of judgement,” felt compelled to preserve them and have the music recorded.
This was no easy task because some of P.D.Q.'s music called for instruments that had not been invented, and Schickele was forced to create the instruments as best he could. For the sour notes, he invented the “dill piccolo"; for music unsuited for either horns or woodwinds, but supposedly something in between, he invented the “tromboon"; and for absolutely horrific music, Schickele’s closest adaptation was the “hardart,” a variety of tone-generating devices mounted on the frame of an automat.
As it turned out, P.D.Q. was the youngest of 21 children of Bach, and he hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a composer, like most of his older siblings. Because of his total lack of musical aptitude, P.D.Q. was discouraged from composing by most of his family, and when he persisted, he was disowned. Deprived of claiming lineage to a musically talented family, his compositions were ignored for 150 years until Schickele foolishly tried to resurrect them.
There is no denying that Schickle is best-known for his comedic musical performances, especially those involving P.D.Q., but he is also an extremely talented composer and musician. He has won five Grammy Awards and was nominated for a Grammy on four other occasions. Each year from 1990 to 1993, his P.D.Q. recordings were awarded Grammys for the "1712 Overture and Other Musical Assaults," "Oedipus Tex and Other Choral Calamities," "WTWP Classical Talkity-Talk Radio" and "Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussions." In 1999, he won a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album with "Schickele Hornsmoke."
Schickele was nominated for Grammys in 1970 for the Best Score from an Original Cast Show for "Oh! Calcutta," as well as Best Album for Children in 1992 for "Peter and the Wolf / A Zoo Called Earth / Gerald McBoing Boing" and Best Spoken Word Album for Children in 2004 for "The Emperor's New Clothes." He was also nominated for Best Spoken Comedy Album for "The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach" in 1996.
Schickele created music for four feature movies, one of which was the award-winning film "Silent Running" in 1972. He also composed music for television commercials and documentaries, as well as several "Sesame Street" segments. From 1992 to 1999, he hosted the award-winning weekly radio show "Schickele Mix" on public radio, where “he introduced thousands of listeners to his eclectic taste in music.” For over 50 years, “Schickele performed thousands of live concerts throughout the world.”
Shortly before retiring from concert tours, he returned to Fargo for a concert on March 18 and 19, 2017. Unlike P.D.Q., Peter Schickele did not have to wait 150 years for his music to be heard.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.