Story: Professor Peter Schickele charts the life and career of P. D. Q. Bach, the twenty-first of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty children. Professor Schickele covers the three main phases of P. D. Q.’s musical output: the Initial Plunge, the Soused period and, finally, Contrition. He also delves into the legacy of P. D. Q. Bach, those he has influenced (or at least prevented from making the same mistakes) and a history of the rediscovery of the works of this justly underappreciated artist.
Review: The guys of Spinal Tap ain’t got nothin’ on Peter Schickele. In the late 1960’s, Schickele began performing the “lost” works of little-known composer P. D. Q. Bach, described by Schickele as the “oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children.” He even adopted a fictional version of himself, Professor Peter Schickele, to differentiate when he is working in the real world from when he is working in P. D. Q.’s. In the years since, he has built up an enormous life story for P. D. Q., which was first set down as a single biography in this book. Also similar to the later Spinal Tap, Schickele portrays P. D. Q. himself, although given the character’s position in history, only through portraits. Schickele is an accomplished musician and composer, having written many award-winning pieces and even several movie scores (including genre work, such as the film Silent Running). All of this is evident in the text of “The Definitive Biography”, a book that any fan of music, classical or otherwise, should read.
The book is not a biography in the traditional sense (not even a fictional one). It consists of four main sections (after you get past the Dedication, Preface, Preface to the English Language Edition, Foreward, Introduction, Author’s Note, Acknowledgements and the Table of Contents): ‘P. D. Q. Bach’s Background’ – a straightforward narrative that carries P. D. Q. from birth to the beginning of his “Soused Period”, ‘The World of P. D. Q. Bach’ – a “pictorial essay” that covers the rest of his life with images accompanied by short blurbs (almost like a PowerPoint presentation), ‘Man or Myth?: In Search of P. D. Q. Bach’ – which chronicles Schickele’s “discoveries” – again with many illustrations and photos, and ‘Such a Horrid Clang’ – a catalogue of P. D. Q.’s music, done very much in the style of a real music catalogue. There are then several appendices.
The effect of this approach is to give “The Definitive Biography” the look and feel of a true scholarly work and not a biography intended for public consumption. This is in perfect keeping with Schickele’s rule of never breaking the fourth wall. When he speaks as Professor Schickele, P. D. Q. Bach is a very real person and this comes through in the book.
But all of that effort at realism would be wasted if the material wasn’t funny. And just because Schickele could be funny on stage or in a recording booth, doesn’t mean he could be funny on paper. But he can and he is. Schickele’s vast knowledge of music (not just classical) means he knows the material and, therefore, is in a perfect position to rip it to shreds. Little things like the way he constantly refers to “Mozart and all the lesser but nevertheless competent composers that dotted the musical landscape of the Age of Enlightenment” show that he not only revels in taking the piss out of Mozart’s exalted reputation, but also the way music scholarship tends towards rote repetition of phrases and ideas, leading to generations of like-thinking people.
The humor ranges from esoteric to downright bawdy. It never crosses the line into truly crude humor, however, which is so omnipresent in today’s humor. In fact, there’s nothing like Schickele’s material around today. (Except for Schickele himself, of course. He’s still “discovering” new P. D. Q. Bach works.) Spinal Tap is close, but even they haven’t put the decades of work into their creation that Schickele has. It is to his credit that he has been able to devote so much of his life to this one creation, all the while sustaining a more “serious” career that any composer in his right mind would envy. You just don’t see that in a world dominated by the likes of Dane Cook and the American Pie movies and their offspring.
The great thing about “The Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. Bach” is that it’s still funny even if you don’t get the music-oriented jokes. You may not understand the specific piece being parodied with the title of “Pervertimento”, but you can certainly understand the humor of it being written for “Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons”. In G major, no less. In fact, the only complaint I have about the book is that the current edition squeezes the original text and pictures into a standard 6″ x 9″ trade paperback, while the original editon was 7.25″ x 8.25″. They accomplished this by simply scaling the original book down to fit the 6″ width, leaving the reader with significantly smaller text and images and about an inch and a half of blank space at the top and bottom of every page.
By all means, buy “The Definitive Biography of P. D. Q. Bach”. It’s a wonderful work and you’ll never regret it. But, for the sake of your eyes alone, try to get an earlier edition. It will help the material achieve its fullest impact.
Author: Peter Schickele
Publisher: Random House