Skip to main content

Composer Peter Schickele '57 Revives P.D.Q. Bach for New York Performances

Peter Schickele '57

Photo by Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

The New York TimesPeter Schickele Brings P.D.Q. Bach Back to the Stage

Avid P.D.Q. Bach followers, and there were many, knew the routine cold. The stage was set, the orchestra was ready, the announced time for the concert had arrived. But the star of the evening — its perpetrator and host, Peter Schickele ['57] — was nowhere to be found.

Bill Walters, the droll stage manager audiences loved to hiss, would saunter out, upbraid latecomers, peer at his watch, shrug his shoulders and slouch back to the wings. Time dragged.

Then a shout rang out, and Mr. Schickele would materialize in a box or balcony, hopelessly disheveled in formal dress and work boots. He would clamber over the rail, shimmy down a rope to orchestra level and mount the stage, and the show was on.

Mr. Schickele, a prolific composer in his own right, begat the ill-begotten P.D.Q. — “the last and least of the great Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20-odd children, and the oddest” — while a student at the Juilliard School in 1954. In 1965, he began annual P.D.Q. Bach concerts in New York, rich, inimitable mixtures of slapstick and sophistication, parody (as in “Oedipus Tex,” P.D.Q.’s “infamous Western oratorio”) and sincerity.

Mr. Schickele was ahead of his time with his motley pastiches. Mash-ups, such manipulations are called today, and, together with samples and remixes, they are all the rage. But the P.D.Q./Schickele phenomenon was also very much a product of its time.

“The mid-60s were the heyday of the L.P.,” Mr. Schickele said. “The Baroque boom had set in, and the time was ripe for a Baroque backlash. It would be very difficult to start doing this now.”

“Years ago I used to watch Victor Borge, still concertizing in his 80s,” he said of another brilliant and formative classical music humorist. “And it never occurred to me that I would do the same. I’m amazed that P.D.Q. has gone on for 50 years. It just goes to show, some people never learn.”

Read the full article at The New York Times.

Schickele graduated from Swarthmore in 1957 with a major in musicology. He later earned a masters degree in musical composition at Juilliard. Upon receiving an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Swarthmore in 1980, he sang his address to the graduating class. In The Meaning of SwarthmoreSchickele wrote, "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." 

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing