Like the superhero in a Saturday-morning cartoon, Peter Schickele leads a double life. There's Peter Schickele the serious composer, who has devoted much of his 40-year career to writing and arranging serious orchestral works, folk-pop songs, and the occasional opera. Then there's Professor Peter Schickele the disheveled academic, who "discovers" the compositions of the hopelessly inept Baroque composer P.D.Q. Bach.
As the good professor has often explained, P.D.Q. is the "last and by far the least" of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20-odd children. But his compositions' titles tell us all we really need to know. There's the "Concerto for Two Pianos Versus Orchestra," the "Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycles & Balloons," and of course, the "Safe Sextet." Unless pressed, Schickele insists that any similarities between him and P.D.Q. Bach are purely coincidental.
Never mind the striking resemblance Schickele bears to the portrait of the allegedly deceased German composer on the cover of his latest CD, "The Jekyll and Hyde Show." His first album in over a decade includes recent P.D.Q. discoveries such as the "Four Next-to-Last Songs" and a string quartet subtitled "The Moose."
"Classical music, much to the chagrin of those of us who love it, has acquired this stuffy reputation," observes Schickele.
He adds that the formal trappings of concerts, from the tuxedos to the ritualized entrances and bows, give people the impression of a field stuck in the 19th century. That goes a long way toward explaining Schickele's trademark stage entrance: swinging in from a backstage rope.
Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1935 and raised in Fargo, N.D., where he became the town's only bassoonist, Schickele developed a taste for the madcap recordings of the bandleader and satirist Spike Jones. In 1953, Schickele, together with his brother and a friend, were toying with a tape recorder in a family basement.
"We had been listening a lot to the Bach Coffee Cantata," he says. "We came up with a piece called the Sanka Cantata. We thought about all these Bach's – C.P.E., J.S. – and said 'why not P.D.Q.,' which was an expression my mother probably used, meaning Pretty Damn Quick."
P.D.Q.'s other works remained undiscovered until 1959 when, as a student at the Juilliard School, Schickele and some friends put on a comic concert.
Schickele later introduced P.D.Q. Bach to the general public at New York's Town Hall in 1965. "I didn't start P.D.Q. Bach with a career in mind," Schickele says. "It was sort of a joke thing for some friends of mine."
Except for a period in the 1990s when Schickele took a breather to focus on "Schickele Mix," his eclectic weekly radio show, he has toured with the merry P.D.Q. Bach act since the early 1970s, usually as a soloist with symphony orchestras.
P.D.Q. Bach's works continue to surprise. We're told that he was influenced by his fellow 18th-century composers, but the composer also managed to anticipate Schubert with his "Trite Quintet," Tchaikovsky with his "1712 Overture," and minimalism with "Einstein on the Fritz," a work that sounds suspiciously like Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach."
"I actually don't feel as big a gap between P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele as a lot of other people do," he says. "I think of composing in rather theatrical terms. The funny piece has to have some kind of particular gag and in a serious piece there has to be some kind of memorable gesture. But the general approach is the same."
Although he plans to take a hiatus from performing, he hasn't lost the impulse to entertain.
"My mother once told me I've been entertaining people since I was 18 months old," he says. "I told that to a colleague of mine and he asked, 'What took you so long?' "