‘PDQ Bach’ musical satirist has died – this Beethoven 5 parody captures Peter Schickele’s rare genius

18 January 2024, 17:11

Peter Schickele Beethoven 5 parody
Peter Schickele Beethoven 5 parody. Picture: Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

The music comedy giant who gave us a celebrated classical alter-ego has died, aged 88.

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Great musician, comedian and satirist Peter Schickele has died at his home in Bearsville, New York. And as the world says farewell to one of the most talented and admired parodists of the last century, a favourite Beethoven performance is being shared anew.

Schickele was born in 1935. He studied music at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and then composition at Juilliard. It was in New York where he began exploring musical comedy, and in a 1965 performance, he debuted his comic alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach.

Named in a play on the vast family of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, P.D.Q. was, according to Schickele, “the youngest and oddest of Johann Sebastian’s 20-odd children”, and (of course) entirely fictional.

Peter Schickele performs in 2004
Peter Schickele performs in 2004. Picture: Getty

Schickele devoted himself to P.D.Q. Bach for 50 years, presenting the composer’s extensive compositional output and unique place in music history.

His works were often plays and parodies on the classical canon – for example, the 1712 Overture, Canine Cantata: Wachet, Arf! (Sleeping Dogs, Awake!), Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion, and A Little Nightmare Music.

Instrumentation regularly spanned from the wacky to downright bizarre, including the pastaphone, and the tromboon – a hybrid trombone and bassoon.

P.D.Q. Bach’s works were performed, recorded and released by their creator. From 1990 to 1993, Shickele’s P.D.Q. Bach recordings won four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album. For many years, Schickele also hosted popular music education radio shows in the US.

Since his passing on 16 January 2024, there is one performance many have turned to, which perfectly captures the unique genius and charm of its creator. Watch it below.

PDQ Bach - Beethoven Symphony No. 5

The Beethoven Symphony No. 5 Sportscast was released on alongside P.D.Q works in 1967. Schickele’s creation narrates the German composer’s great symphony as if it were an all-American sports event.

Accompanying the live orchestra are referee whistles, slow-motion replays, sporting analysis and howls of outrage.

It’s all very funny – but as with the best comedy, just below the jokes on the surface, there’s so much more. Within his satire, Schickele guides you through the instruments of the orchestra, different symphonic terms, as well as the intricacies of sonata form and the structure of Beethoven’s masterpiece.

Who knew a musicology lesson could involve so much laughter?

It’s precisely what made Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach so special – that ability to entertain, but also educate and inspire at the same time. What a blessing they were to generations of listeners and the history of classical music.