P.D.Q. Bach's Musical Menagerie

Classic Arts Features   P.D.Q. Bach's Musical Menagerie
Professor Peter Schickele, the discoverer of composer P.D.Q. Bach and his notorious works, poses the musical question: Can instruments from three different continents get along harmoniously with one another?

Eighteenth-century European music was generally composed for eighteenth-century European instruments. It's true that P.D.Q. Bach, the last, least, and oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20-odd children, wrote a work employing the tuba several decades before the instrument was invented, but that was an anomaly.

An even more striking anomaly is his recently discovered work Two and a Half Variations on "In Dulci Jubilo," scored for koto, musical saw, krummhorn, and serpent. In this case the envelope being pushed is not only temporal but also geographic; the krummhorn, a Renaissance instrument, had long since become obsolete by the end of the 18th century (and if you've ever heard a krummhorn, you know why), whereas the koto hails from the exotic isle of Japan, and the musical saw from the wilds of backwoods America. The serpent is also a pre-Classical instrument, which was, however, still in use during P.D.Q. Bach's day (and sometimes even after the bars had closed, during his night), but it was eschewed by better composers in favor of the less serpiginous but slightly more reliable (and less venomous) bassoon.

As it happens, this year's annual P.D.Q. Bach concerts feature (in addition to the Two and a Half Variations on "In Dulci Jubilo") the infamous Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra, in which the helpless solo instrument is both philosophically and literally deconstructed before the audience's very eyes. Manned by the author of this article, the bassoon is taken to heights of virtuosity unmatched since those achieved by the balalaika, the oud, and the highland bagpipes in various other works by the same composer.

Was P.D.Q. the first true synthesizer of World Music, or was he merely a randy tourist? One can decide for one's self by attending one of the concerts at the end of December. It's a tough call.

Oops, I Did It Again, Yet Another P.D.Q. Bach Concert with Professor Peter Schickele and the New York Pick-Up Ensemble takes place on December 27 and 29, Avery Fisher Hall.

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