PDQ Bach


(Part Two is the performance, so I post it first)

Itzhak Perlman and Peter Schickele mix it up in a hilarious duet at a Boston Pops Concert with John Williams conducting. Part 1 is mostly the setup, with Peter Schickele expounding on the life of P.D.Q. Bach, “the 21st of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20 children.”

PDQ Bach is the ultimate in combining High Art and Low Art for awesome high brow comedy. It was great in this video to see PDQ Bach, violinist Itzhak Perlmand and composer/conductor John Williams all working together on the gags. I also like how the music makes you wait for each subsequent gag as they are interspersed with a fiarly straight ahead Riccoco style orchestration.

Part 2 is the real gem however that shows off Perlman’s violin brilliance and perhaps a heretofore unexpected comedic genius.


P. D. Q. Bach is a composer invented by musical satirist “Professor” Peter Schickele. In a gag that Schickele has used in a four-decade-long career, he performs “discovered” works of this forgotten member of the Bach family. Schickele’s music combines parodies of musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music, and slapstick comedy.

The name “P. D. Q.” is a parody of the three-part names given to some members of the Bach family that are commonly reduced to initials, such as C. P. E., for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. PDQ is an initialism for “pretty damn (darn) quick”.
Schickele regularly tours, and has recorded on Vanguard and Telarc labels.

Among the many “facts” about the composer’s life in Schickele’s fictional biography of the composer, we find the following:

P.D.Q. Bach was born in Leipzig on April 1, 1742, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach; the twenty first of Johann’s twenty children. According to Schickele, Bach’s parents did not bother to give their youngest son a real name, and settled on “P.D.Q.” instead. The only earthly possession Johann Sebastian Bach willed to his son was a kazoo.

In 1755, P.D.Q. Bach was an apprentice of the inventor of the musical saw, Ludwig Zahnstocher (German for “toothpick”). In 1756, P.D.Q. Bach met Leopold Mozart and advised him to teach his son Wolfgang Amadeus how to play billiards. Later on, P.D.Q. Bach went to St. Petersburg to visit his distant cousin Leonhard Sigismund Dietrich Bach (L.S.D. Bach), whose daughter Betty Sue bore P.D.Q. a child.

Finally, in 1770, P.D.Q. Bach started to write music, mostly by stealing melodies from other composers.

P.D.Q.’s final words, which were spoken to Betty-Sue Bach, were “Time, gentlemen.” The time was exactly eleven o’clock on the evening of May 5, 1807[3] in Baden-Baden-Baden, Germany.

P.D.Q. Bach’s grave was marked “1807–1742”. The reverse order of the dates has led to some controversy, but Prof. Schickele calls the theory that P.D.Q. Bach lived his life backwards, Merlin-like, “too fanciful to merit serious consideration” and insists that the marking on the grave was a “transparent attempt [by] the Bach family to make it appear that P.D.Q. could not possibly have been sired by Johann Sebastian, who died in 1750.” Nevertheless, when listing the dates in sheet music or program notes, he always includes a question mark: “(1807-1742)?”

P.D.Q. Bach’s Epitaph reads [as requested by his cousin Betty Sue Bach and written by the local doggerel catcher]:
In the “original” German:

Hier liegt ein Mann ganz ohnegleich;
Im Leibe dick, an Sünden reich.
Wir haben ihn in das Grab gesteckt,
Weil es uns dünkt er sei verreckt.

Here lies a man with sundry flaws
And numerous Sins upon his head;
We buried him today because
As far as we can tell, he’s dead.

The translation above is provided by Schickele in the “biography”. A more literal translation:
Here lies a man entirely without equal,
Fat in body, rich in sins.
We’ve put him into the grave,
as it seems to us he’s kicked the bucket.

In preconcert lectures, Schickele has revealed that P.D.Q. Bach had a substantial influence on Beethoven’s deafness: Beethoven came to dread P.D.Q. Bach and his music so greatly that Beethoven resorted to stuffing coffee grounds into his ears whenever he saw P.D.Q. Bach coming.
Before performing the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, Schickele stated, though no documentary evidence existed, that the dance music of P.D.Q. Bach generally suggested that one of P.D.Q. Bach’s legs was shorter than the other. Later on in his Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion album (in the introduction to the Six Contrary Dances), Schickele states that a recently discovered doctor’s note proves that P.D.Q. Bach’s hollow leg was considerably longer than the other one.


Schickele describes P.D.Q. Bach as having “the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.” The most distinguishing feature of P. D. Q. Bach’s music, in the words of Schickele, is “manic plagiarism”.

P.D.Q. Bach seldom wrote original tunes; he stole melodies from other composers and rearranged them in often funny ways. P.D.Q. Bach’s music uses instruments not often used in orchestras, such as the tromboon, slide whistle, hardart, lasso d’amore, left-handed sewer flute and kazoo, as well as items not normally used as musical instruments, such as balloons, fog horns, and bicycles. His music also calls for unusual methods of playing traditional instruments, such as blowing through double reeds by themselves (that is, detached from the instruments) throughout Iphigenia in Brooklyn. His parts for vocalists include coughing, snoring, sobbing, laughing and yelling.

P.D.Q. Bach’s work pokes fun at music including Baroque, Romantic, modern, country music (Oedipus Tex and Blaues Gras), and rap (Classical Rap). The “Schickele” or “S.” numbers whimsically assigned to P.D.Q. Bach’s works parody musicologists’ catalogues of famous composers, such as the Köchel catalogue of Mozart’s works.

There is often a startling juxtaposition of styles within a single P.D.Q. Bach piece. The Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz, which alludes to Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, provides an example. The underlying music is J.S. Bach’s first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, but with each phrase repeated interminably in a minimalist manner that parodies Glass’s. On top of this mind-numbing structure is added everything from jazz phrases to snoring to the chanting of a meaningless phrase (“Koy Hotsy-Totsy,” alluding to the art film Koyaanisqatsi for which Glass wrote the score). Through all these mutilations, the piece never deviates from Bach’s original harmonic structure.

The humor in P.D.Q. Bach music often derives from violation of audience expectations, such as repeating a tune more than the usual number of times, resolving later than usual or not at all, unusual key changes, or sudden switches from high art to low art.

Schickele divides P.D.Q. Bach’s musical output into three periods: the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition.
During the Initial Plunge, P.D.Q. Bach wrote the Traumarai for solo piano, an Echo Sonata for “two unfriendly groups of instruments”, and a Gross Concerto for Divers’ Flutes, two Trumpets, and Strings.

During the Soused (or Brown-Bag) Period, P.D.Q. Bach wrote a Concerto for Horn & Hardart, a Sinfonia Concertante, a Pervertimento for Bicycle, Bagpipes, and Balloons, a Serenude, a Perückenstück (literally German for “Hair-piece”), a Suite from The Civilian Barber {spoofing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville}, a Schleptet in E-flat major, the half-act opera The Stoned Guest {the character of “The Stone Guest” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni}, a Concerto for Piano vs. Orchestra, Erotica Variations {Beethoven’s Eroica Variations}, Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice, an opera in one unnatural act (Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), The Art of the Ground Round {Bach’s The Art of Fugue}, a Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra, and a Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion.
During the Contrition Period, P.D.Q. Bach wrote the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn {Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, etc.}, the oratorio The Seasonings {Haydn’s The Seasons}, Diverse Ayres on Sundrie Notions, a Sonata for Viola for Four Hands, the chorale prelude Should, a Notebook for Betty Sue Bach {Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”}, the Toot Suite, the Grossest Fugue {Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge}, a Fanfare for the Common Cold {Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man}, and the canine cantata Wachet Arf! {Bach’s Wachet auf}.

He composed the religious work Missa Hilarious (Schickele no. N2O, N2O being nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”), which was found along with documents pertaining to his excommunication.

3 thoughts on “PDQ Bach

  1. I’ve seen the PDQ Bach concert at Lincoln Center years ago.
    You said: <> – that explains the PDQ piece ‘3 and 1/2 variations on In Dulci Jubilo’ for musical saw, Japanese koto, serpent and crumb-horn that I witnessed at that concert 🙂
    I Googled it, hoping to find a video of that piece, but all I found was a photo on the website of the lady who played the musical saw at that performance: http://www.sawlady.com/composers.htm

  2. Trying to find a song I sang in high school choir. I thought it was by PDQ Bach. I remember some of the lyrics “brown thumb, brown thumb, I’ve been cursed by a big brown thumb” I thought the title was “Planticide” but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.

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