P.S. He’s 80

July 23, 2015
 

Sometimes “serious” music has a tendency to get a little too serious. There are so many stories in the history of classical music in which composers are quoted from letters or journals, boasting about a particular work they finished with terms like “masterpiece” or phrases like “my best yet.”  So it’s rather refreshing to read an account by the famous English music historian & writer Charles Burney, quoting the much-admired 18th century Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi.  Galuppi took Burney into his workroom where he simply described his activity as “dirtying paper.”

A new recording features performances from some of the “dirtied paper” of Galuppi, specifically his string concertos. It’s a recording by Ensemble Stilmoderno from Milan, Italy (Brilliant Classics 94648) . The group celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The Burney incident, by the way, is included on the printed paper of the CD booklet.

Burney’s experience reminded me of a story about the American composer George Chadwick related by Steven Ledbetter in the program notes for a recording of that composer’s piano quintet (Northeastern 235).  Chadwick talked about working on the quintet in the summer of 1887 in Nantucket. While in a hammock, he would be visited by the neighborhood children. “Sometimes little Becky Dodd sat on my stomach and sometimes little Dorothy Sharp. Becky asked me one day what I ‘made all those pencil marks for’ and I said ‘blest if I know.’ “

If Galuppi and Chadwick help you feel a bit more relaxed about classical music, they’re just warmup acts for a musical celebrity who has taught performers and audiences to have loads of fun with classical music over the past half century.  Musicologists and music historians can lose an audience in no time, even when they’re presenting fascinating discoveries about some of the most famous composers. Professor Peter Schickele has built quite an audience over the years presenting the music of the composer that he alone discovered: P.D.Q Bach.

Peter Schickele is a composer, arranger, bassoonist, conductor, humorist and radio host. He turned 80 on July 17th. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the first live concert of music by P.D.Q. Bach presented by Schickele. With his live concerts and recordings, Schickele has had classical music listeners giggling, chuckling, even howling over the years. We began our Classic Morning Prelude celebration on July 17th  with a selection from the P.D.Q. Bach work known as The Short-Tempered Clavier, subtitled Preludes and Fugues in all the Major and Minor Keys Except for the Really Hard Ones. Pianist Christopher O’Riley was featured on the premiere recording of 20 years ago (Telarc 80390). We heard him perform the 3rd Prelude and Fugue, which incorporates the tunes "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and the so-called “Snake Charmer” tune. We also heard the Minuet Militaire by P.D.Q Bach in which Schickele led the Greater Hoople Area Off-Season Philharmonic, though under the name of Walter Bruno – a play on the legendary Bruno Walter.

So is Professor Peter Schickele the “Weird Al “of classical music? It’s a thought. According to Schickele biographer Tammy Ravas, he was inspired by musical humorist Spike Jones when he was 10 years old. Schickele is a master of musical gags, especially the juxtaposing of tunes with amusing effects.  Even the newcomer to classical music can enjoy that aspect of his work. But the more you become familiar with composers, titles and classical music lingo, the more you can enjoy Schickele’s “discoveries.” While some listeners are just getting to know the legendary composers, Schickele created one that “plays tribute” to all the others, you might say. You can have fun just reading the liner notes to the P.D.Q. Bach recordings.

The “Professor” is not his full-time gig. Schickele, who studied at Juilliard, has written over 100 compositions, many of which have nothing to do with P.D.Q. Bach. The story is told that the first P.D.Q. Bach concert was something of a “study break.”  Funny, though, that Schickele’s “serious” works may be a bit more obscure than those of the once obscure composer he made famous.  He’s still quite active as a composer, arranger and performer these days.

Hopefully you’re a most active WILL-FM listener who knows that you don’t have to be afraid of “serious” music. Sooner or later you discover that no matter what kind of musical background you have, classical music can be inspiring and enjoyable, even when it gets to the point that you’re doing some pretty serious listening.

Thank you for making it possible for us to provide listeners with hours and hours of classical music to accommodate some serious listening on the radio or online. We invite you to tune in to FM 90.9 or to log on to will.illinois.edu day and night to enjoy that music!


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