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Music / P.D.Q. Bach

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P. D. Q. Bach is a fairly obscure member of the Bach family (being the last, least, and certainly oddest of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20-odd children) who lived from 1807–1742(?). As with much of his family, he began a career as a musician; unlike much of his family, he was both Giftedly Bad and extremely prolific. After his death he was promptly forgotten by history, and most of his compositions were suppressed by the Bachs to protect the family name; what we do know of him is primarily the work of one Professor Peter Schickele (July 17, 1935 – January 16, 2024) of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Schickele spent much of his career not only researching the life of this obscure historical figure, but also discovering his works and performing them for modern audiences.

...Okay, fine, you got us: P. D. Q. Bach never existed. Schickele made him up as a disguise for his own compositions, which are parodies of typical classical conventions and compositions. The results, though of questionable merit on purely musical terms, are unconventional, eclectic, and quite popular on the comedy circuit, performed anywhere from high school campuses to the Boston Pops, long-time seat of famed composer John Williams.

PDQ's work provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of the entire genre of Classical Music, playfully riffing on the genre's tropes and most famous compositions through the lens of a Giftedly Bad fictitious descendant of Johann Sebastian Bach.
  • All There in the Manual: The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach provides the backstory.
  • Anachronism Stew: A staple of PDQ Bach's work, incorporating jazzy licks and excerpts from 20th-century pieces into what are ostensibly 18th-century compositions.
  • Anti Christmas Carol: Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John is about the one drunk relative who always shows up to ruin Christmas dinner, in addition to gleefully abusing the comma for fun and profit.
    Ten o'clock on Christmas morn and all the guests are coming to the door
    Ten o'clock on Christmas morn and Uncle John's already on the floor
    Though the weather's bitter cold there's not a frown to mar the festive mood
    Wait till they discover that old Uncle John has eaten all the food!
  • Anti-Love Song: My Bonny Lass She Smelleth, My Jane, "The Queen to Me a Royal Pain doth Give", and many many others.
  • Berserk Button: The Prof's WTWP co-host Blondie is driven insane by Pachelbel's Canon (the station's call letters stand for "Wall-to-Wall Pachelbel"), almost Driven to Suicide. Especially at a time when she's on the verge of being let go by the station's head.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Subverted. The final part of Oedipus Tex appears to advocate that sort of thing.
    The moral of the story is of course,
    Don't love your mother, save it for your horse.
    You will be filled with great remorse
    If you give your mother love you should be saving for your horse!
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: Oedipus Tex casts a Bigfoot as the Sphinx.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The titles of P.D.Q.'s pieces have meanings obfuscated by translation into pseudo-musical Italian, pseudo-Lutheran German, or pseudo-ecclesiastical Latin:
    • "Come un pipistrello fuori dall' inferno" (finale of the "Howdy" Symphony) = "Like a Bat out of Hell"
    • "Ave Maria et Agnus Dei" (from the "Little Pickle Book"), literally "Hail Mary and the Lamb of God," actually sounds like "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
    • "Fräulein Maria Mack" (also from the "Little Pickle Book") is none other than the Playground Song "Miss Mary Mack."
    • Black Forest Bluegrass uses German lyrics to express idiomatic English:
      Blauer Gras und grüne Himmel / Sag mir, wo zum Teufel bin ich?
      Blue grass and green sky / Tell me, where the hell am I?
    • One piece ends with a German "Shave And A Haircut", but the last phrase is "two please" ("zwei bitte"), which sounds like "two bits" to someone who speaks both languages.
  • Bizarre Instrument: The works of P.D.Q. Bach often require the use of unconventional instruments, like the "tromboon" (trombone with a bassoon reed, combining the disadvantages of both instruments).
    • Or the "lasso de amore" (a flexible tube which is swung by one end, creating sound by air passing across the opposite open end, like blowing across the mouth of a bottle).
    • He also uses standard instruments in bizarre ways. For example, in one concert Prof Schickele was seen to tuck the bow of a violin under his chin and move the violin back and forth across it. Later that evening he also played the violin as if it was a banjo.
  • Boastful Rap: In "Classical Rap": "I'm the apex, I'm the best. I'm considerably better than all the rest."
  • Bowdlerize: Each madrigal in The Triumphs of Thusnelda was published with slightly sanitized lyrics. The Biography mentions and complains about this, and gives permission to use the original words, which it includes.
  • The Comically Serious: Any musician performing P.D.Q.'s works.
  • Content Warnings: Parodied on the cover of ''Oedipus Tex & Other Choral Calamities":
    Warning! Contains "Classical Rap"
    Pathetic Advisory: Inane Lyrics
  • Dirty Old Man: Can be implied by some of the titles of P.D.Q.'s works, such as Pervertimento, Serenude, and The Erotica Variations.
  • Dynamic Entry: Until the early 1980s, Schickele's preferred method of arriving at his concerts (late and disheveled, as per his character) was to swing from the balcony onto the stage, with the goal of knocking over as many chairs and music stands as possible. This was replaced in later years with the somewhat more subdued method of running down an aisle and belly-flopping onto the stage.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: 'The 'Sanka' Cantata'' is mostly puns on the names of the people whose house they recorded it in. More bizarrely, the role of the discoverer was played by David Schickele as Sir Osbronk Chapie, Bart.
  • El Spanish "-o": The "Howdy" Symphony has a movement marked "allegro con mucho brio," meaning "lively, with lots of French cheese."
  • Everything Is an Instrument: A dog toy with a wind-up aspect that changed its pitch depending on how fast you pulled on it was once used as a major part of one musical piece. Other instruments have included plumbing parts, foghorns, balloons, a bicycle, the Polizeiposaune (a trombone with a siren stuck in the bell), the Pümpenflötte (a flute connected to a bicycle pump), the "Hardart" (a percussion instrument where every note was made by a wildly different object, from bicycle bells to rubber duckies to toy hoot-owls that raise their wings when you blow on them), and so on and so forth.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Schickele's definitive biography of P.D.Q. Bach is titled "The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach".
  • Eye Scream: Played for Laughs(!) in Oedipus Tex: "As soon as Oedipus put out his eyes, he kind of wished he hadn't."
  • Fake Radio Show Album: Report from Hoople: P.D.Q. Bach on the Air and WTWP Classical Talkity-Talk Radio.
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: In the intro to the "Minuet Militaire".
  • Feghoot:
    • "So This Guy," the last movement of the "Knock Knock Cantata," offers one of these.
    • There's also a sketch on the 1712 Overture CD that turns out to be a long build-up to the punchline, "I've just always wanted to give Burt Bach a rock."
    • Oedipus Tex is a half-hour set up to deliver The Eyes of Texas as the punchline.
  • First-World Problems: "Classical Rap" contains a number of these, from being badgered for charitable donations, to being unable to get tickets to a popular Broadway show.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since Oedipus Tex is Oedipus Rex IN THE WILD WEST, it's pretty clear what's gonna happen, and the opening Greek Chorus figuratively and literally spells it all out.
  • For Inconvenience, Press "1": The track introductions from the album Two Pianos Are Better than One start out as a telephone menu, but get progressively more surreal:
    If you wish to hear this work as the composer wrote it, press 1.
    If you wish to hear it sung by Spanish monks who live in an isolated monastery called Our Lady of How to Package and Market Recordings, press 2.
    If you wish to hear it performed by members of the Bolshoi Capitalist Ensemble, press 3.
    If you wish to hear it played by caffeine addicts who bring it a good two minutes under the next longest performance, press 4.
  • Framing Device: The Short-Tempered Clavier album is presented as Schickele's testimony at a congressional hearing against a constitutional amendment to prohibit performance of music more than a month old.
  • Funny Background Event: Those of P.D.Q's songs that aren't silly in their own right tend to have something odd going on in the background during the recording. For example, the Traumarai for Unaccompanied Piano was performed on the very piano that the composer used when writing it, in the home of its owner. During the performance, a baby starts crying, someone starts vaccuuming in the next room, and a kid turns on a stereo to a rock station.
    • La Pucelle de New Orleans is recorded near an airport, is further interrupted by a passing train, and finally ends after criminals break into the studio, have a shootout with police, and set the building on fire.
    • For the latter piece, the part where it’s easiest to hear the music is the main joke in the actual piece: A Dixieland band tries to replace the oboes, and has to be kicked out. This itself becomes a funny background event in live performances, as they try to sneak back onstage a few more times.
  • Giftedly Bad
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: The madrigal "The Queen To Me A Royal Pain Doth Give".
  • Gratuitous French: Octoot uses French for its movement headings, mainly so that it can use "tout" or "toute" as often as poosible.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Inverted. The music itself is completely ridiculous, but is always performed by professional classical musicians and opera singers who play it totally straight.
  • I Have No Son!: In-universe, P.D.Q. dates are officially listed as "1807-1742?", so that the rest of the Bach family can deny that Johann Sebastian (died 1750) could possibly be his father.
  • Incredibly Long Note: Parodied at one point in The Stoned Guest, when the soprano runs out of air and has to catch her breath, getting called out on it by the mezzo.note 
    • In the final movement of "Three Chorale-Based Piecelets," the organist holds on to the final note way too long, after which Schickele proposes making it a federal crime for an organist to hold the last chord of a piece for more than 10 seconds.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Far too often, but worth particular mention is the "Knock Knock Cantata."
  • Informed Location: The University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. There really is a Hoople, North Dakota, but it's a town of only about 250 people and it's located in the northeastern part of the state.
  • I Shall Taunt You: "The Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments", in which the brass section sits in a balcony and does everything it can to screw with the woodwinds, such as ignoring their cue and playing "Nanny Nanny Boo-Boo."
  • Kazoos Mean Silliness: He often scored for kazoos in his larger-scale works, usually along with various other unconventional instruments. One set of program notes explains that though the kazoos used were modern, they were equipped with 18th-century tissue paper for the sake of authenticity.
  • Large-Ham Announcer: "New Horizons in Music Appreciation," Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with football-style color commentary.
    "The crowd is getting very excited. The brasses have come in and the timpani and everybody, and it's extremely exciting! I think we're building up to a fugue!"
  • Last-Second Word Swap: "The Art of the Ground Round":
    Nelly is a nice girl, but Hannah is a (w)hor-rrible prude
    Paul is a policeman, but Peter is a pimp-ly and rude young man
  • Letting the Air out of the Band: Occurs in the aforementioned "Echo Sonata", when the conductor, finally tiring of the brass players' shenanigans, pulls a gun on them.
  • Morality Ballad
  • Medium Awareness
  • Mundane Made Awesome: One of the pieces that Schickele himself admits to writing on these albums is Bach Portrait, essentially a parody of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. Like the original, it is a piece of orchestra music interspersed with quotations of J.S. Bach's writings... except the quotations are from letters in which Bach is complaining that he's not getting paid enough, or that a cask of wine he bought was damaged in shipping, among other completely banal topics.
    Schickele: "The man [J. S. Bach, not PDQ Bach] had only two things on his mind. One was music. The other was—" yelps as his support collapses under him.
  • Musical Gag
  • Musicalis Interruptus
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Report From Hoople, the fictitious campus radio broadcast on the third album, opens side II with Peter Schickele rushing in:
    "Well, here we are with another program of fine music and P.D.Q. Bach. We start with a little of the latter as usual..."
  • Overly Long Gag: Happens often in his music. For example, during the climax of the 1712 Overture (obviously a parody of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture), the exact same chord is repeated 21 times before the orchestra stops to take a breath and continue.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Some program notes for the Pervertimento note that, since its discovery, "...P. D. Q. Bach must be considered history's greatest late eighteenth-century Southern German composer of multi-movement works for bagpipes and chamber orchestra."
  • Overly Prepared Gag: "Please, Kind Sir".
  • Parody Names
  • Piss-Take Rap: "Classical Rap" describes the hardships of life in the city... on the affluent Upper West Side.
    So we're making six figures here
    But I have to make one thing crystal clear:
    I have to laugh, and I have to scoff
    When I hear people calling us well-off.
    Anyone who thinks that we're sitting pretty
    Doesn't know what it's like in the big bad city.
  • Product Placement: "Tragedy, Tragedy! (Drink Pepsi!) Tragedy, Tragedy!"
  • Read the Fine Print: In the biography, P.D.Q Bach is said to have signed a contract promising him a stipend of five shillings, in exchange for which he agrees to "perform the duties incumbent upon the Organist of the Chapel if I feel like it." According to Schickele, this shows that P.D.Q. was not only a musical innovator, but also the first person to use fine print in a contract.
  • Reference Overdosed: It's quite impressive how many later composers P.D.Q. was able to plagiarize from. Schickele usually "explains" this by suggesting that they were really plagiarizing from P.D.Q. Bach, knowing no one would ever call them on it. In the case of the "Erotica" variations lifting their theme from Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, he claims that P.D.Q. was following the principle: "If you have to steal, steal from a composer who's deaf."
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: P.D.Q. essentially made his whole career from this shtick.
  • Same Face, Different Name: Many P.D.Q. Bach albums include pieces composed under Peter Schickele's name. Though Schickele has written some more serious works, these pieces tend to be even more Reference Overdosed than P.D.Q.'s works.
  • Shave And A Haircut: Zwei bitte!
  • Sincerest Form of Flattery: Prof. Schickele has acknowledged his indebtedness to Spike Jones in writing music with comedic elements and goofy sounds.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Invoked.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Much of the humor comes from bawdy jokes and "low culture" musical references performed by deadpan performers in a stuffy concert setting.
  • Spoof Aesop: The moral of Oedipus Tex is that bestiality is preferable over Parental Incest.
  • Stylistic Suck: Peter Schickele is a Juilliard-trained composer and performer, but the level of unoriginality and poor music theory in PDQ Bach's work certainly makes it seem otherwise.
  • Take That!: Zig-zagged in a typically unique fashion, in the third album, P.D.Q. Bach on the Air. Schickele snubs Beethoven at one point. The next portion of the show is interrupted when The Eroica Symphony suddenly starts playing and gives Schickele a beat-down, after which he admits that "some of his Country Dances are very nice pieces."
  • Translate The Loan Words Too: The lyrics for "La Pucelle de New Orleans" supposedly include the line "Hinky dinky do you speak."
  • Translation Convention: P.D.Q. Bach's vocal works have most often been discovered in English translations. These were supposedly prepared by Jonathan "Boozey" Hawkes, a drinking buddy of P.D.Q.'s from Liverpool.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change:
    • "Song to Celia" (a parody of Ben Johnson's eponymous poem and the song based on it, "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes") has a none-too-steady chorus attempting modulations in various places and picking fights over the key with the accompanist. The last verse modulates 6 times, 4 of them on a single syllable, and the last 2 painfully scooped down and up.
    • P.D.Q. Bach apparently had a taste for these, only moving one step down instead of up.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The more you know about Classical Music, the funnier you'll find the jokes. For example, the aforementioned Jonathon "Boozey" Hawkes is a reference to the British music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, something only a classical musician would know.
  • Visual Pun: The iconic poster for the 1980 Music You Can't Get Out of Your Head concert (shown above), the cover of The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach, and others.
  • Vocal Range Exceeded:
    • The bass aria "Open Sesame Seeds" from The Seasonings is deliberately written to drop off the bottom of any singer's range for a little bit, then come back up to something reasonable.
    • Actually achieved with an instrument in "Schleptet in E Flat Major". The second movement has the violin play a run that moves higher and higher to a point where the violinist cannot possibly play it correctly.
    • In the final notes of Iphigenia in Brooklyn, the "bargain countertenor" note  must sing a G5 followed by a G2, three octaves lower, and well out of a normal countertenor's range.
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma: An entire song built around this: by moving the pause / comma around in the phrase, Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John becomes "Throw the Yule log on Uncle John."
  • Westminster Chimes: The Fugue in A Major from "The Short-Tempered Clavier" uses this complete with twelve o'clock chime.
  • Woolseyism: In-universe, the explanation for the lyrics to "Classical Rap".
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: The refrain of "The Queen to Me a Royal Pain Doth Give" is repetitions of "Oy vey!"
  • Your Mom: The Art of the Ground Round has a verse not found on the LP, Who, oh Who where the three voices combine to sing “your mother wears army shoes.”