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A Minor Major

Peter Schickele '57

Now, your old Quakers were not known for their interest in music, and the legacy of that attitude was still evident when I arrived at Swarthmore in 1952. The Music Department consisted of Alfred Swan, who also taught at Haverford, and I was the only music major. For some reason, music composition was the only applied art course offered in those days, and I took Dr. Swan's composition "course" (there were so few students in the class that it was more like a seminar) every semester I was at Swarthmore, which gave me that much more time to write.

But though music making at the College was amateur, it was intense: I sang in the chorus, played bassoon in the orchestra, helped organize a chamber music concert in Bond almost every Sunday afternoon; and when I wrote a violin concerto for my fellow student Carl Berger, I didn't have to worry about keeping the solo part easy; like many doctors-to-be, Carl was a serious musician. I wrote (and-this is important-heard) four orchestral pieces and dozens of chamber works while I was there (not to mention the score for the 1957 Hamburg Show). The College even came up (by dipping into some lecture fund, as I recall) with some money to help get the orchestral parts for the violin concerto copied.

The point of these anecdotes is that even though Swarthmore's curriculum was hardly set up with music in mind, so many music lovers existed among the faculty and students that there was always something going on, and, perhaps most important, the College had the flexibility to make sure that what should happen happened, even if it wasn't in the catalog. Also, it seems obvious that my research into the life and music of the putative composer P.D.Q. Bach would not have had the truly flabbergasting cultural depth it evinces, had it not been for the broad general education I received on the banks of the Crum.

Sometime during my junior year, a well-known composer agreed to look at several of my compositions; his advice was to transfer, immediately, to a school that took music seriously. I didn't take his advice, and it's true that when I graduated, it was extremely important for me to go to a real conservatory. But it's also true that, as a student at Juilliard, I was glad I'd been to Swarthmore.

Peter Schickele, composer, musician, and author, is best known for his satiric performances of the works of P.D.Q. Bach.