Sunday, May 09, 2010

Nine Lives 9: Bach - P.D.Q. Bach!

Our book today, alas, is The Definitive Life of P. D. Q. Bach (1807 – 1742?) by the extremely estimable Professor Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, and it’s the only vaguely authoritative account of the life, career, and bar tabs of the last – and most certainly the least – of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children (none was odder, either). J.S. Bach developed a deep antipathy toward “the boy” (his initials are simply random letters, his father claiming he’d already used up all the ‘good’ names on his previous children) and a marked dislike of his career, even though he died while P.D.Q. was only eight. That death was commemorated in a print helpfully provided by the author, along with this description:
When P. D. Q. was eight years old, his father died. This picture of Johann Sebastian going up to heaven was done by an eyewitness to the event, who said that the sky was filled with “the most glorious music, as if God himself were playing upon the great Organ of the Cosmos, and really playing up a storm, too.” The following month a eulogy appeared in the official publication of the Guild of Church Musicians, The Organ Organ, expressing the “deeply felt” sentiments of” each and every” member of the guild: “That Sebastian Bach was the King of Instruments there can be no denying and we must all experience the pang of his passing. We must not, however, cease to strive for the lofty ideals that continued to inspire him as long as he was (as the expression is among organists) alive and kicking; life must, and no doubt will, go on. Although the world has lost a great musician, it has gained a vacancy: applications are now being accepted by the Leipzig Town Council.

P.D.Q .never received anything in the way of an education; indeed, even as a small baby, he was generally too lazy to cry, and that laziness stood him in good stead for the rest of his life. Even though the composer took several vows of abstinence from the craft of music (his first was at age three), he kept responding to the hog-calls of his Muse, and in between titanic drinking bouts, a body of work began to take shape. “Many great composers,” Professor Schickele reminds us, “were ignored during their own lifetime, but P. D. Q. Bach stands out as a monument to ignorance.”

That monument has several sections – including the Initial Plunge (“The period during which P. D. Q. Bach learned all that he ever learned about the craft of musical composition; it lasted about six days”), the Soused Period (exhibiting “excruciating je ne sais quoi”), and the Contrition Period (during which he was plagued with a hangover that lasted well after his death and is calculated to have a half-life of over one hundred and forty years) – have been carefully documented by Professor Schikele despite several professional obstacles. One of these obstacles has always been the institutional disdain shown by his colleagues, who’ve demonstrated “an enthusiastic lack of interest” (as he stiffly puts it at one point, “The often-expressed opinion of Dr. Olaf Johansen of the U. of S.N.D. that ‘P. D. Q. Bach’s scores, like children, should be seen and not heard,’ is not shared by the author”), a disdain, it must be noted, that was widely, indeed universally, felt in P. D. Q. Bach’s own day.

This antiphony most certainly included members of his own celebrated family. When P.D.Q. Bach applied for the position of Temporary Substitute Assistant Organist at St. Jezebel’s Cathedral in Haymarket, his own brother Johan Christian Bach wrote a long anti-recommendation which concludes, one might say, molto agitato:
… a person so unworthy of the name Bach that his very existence must be consider’d an Affront to Taste. I am convinc’d that allowing this person to exhibit his Skills, if such indeed they may be call’d, would be for the worthy recipients of this epistle not merely a Waste of Time, but in sooth an almost criminal Misuse of Time, so little of which is allotted to us here on this mortal Orb.

(Not that familial kindness ended up any better: Betty-Sue Bach, of the “Russian” Bachs, was one of the only members of the extended family to show any affection for the composer, and after his death she devoted her life to the publication of his works – for which she was burned at the stake in 1817)

P.D.Q.’s life consisted of more than drinking and eating (not much more, but still) – there are the corpi, which no serious musicologist must take into account. When we consider the “Concerto for Bassoon vs. Orchestra,” the opera “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” (S. 52, 162), the “Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice” (“an opera in one unnatural act”), the Schleptet (S. 0), the Missa Hilarious (for which the composer was excommunicated in 1787, the only person ever to have been excommunicated on purely aesthetic grounds, and the only individual ever to be declared a mortal sin), and the “Fanfare for the Common Cold (s. 98.7)” (“Nothing whatsoever is known about this piece, so the author would like to take this opportunity to tell an amusing story he heard the other day …”), we begin to perceive that our time could be better spent.

[caption id="attachment_1051" align="aligncenter" width="197" caption="the univeristy of southern north dakota at hoople, looking south across the campus"][/caption]

And yet, Professor Schickele goes on and on, as when he describes the inspiration behind the Grossest Fugue (S. 50 % off):
Fugues have the reputation of being dry and academic, primarily due to the fact (one suspects) that your average layperson has trouble keeping track of where the subject, or theme (or subject) is; P. D. Q. Bach, however, in what can only be described as a didactic coup, solves this problem in a novel manner that cannot fail to reach even the densest layperson: he simply instructs each performer to stand up whenever he or she is playing the whatchamacallit.

Because you’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the public (a sentiment with which Professor Schickele, one suspects, was all too familiar), P. D. Q. Bach died a wealthy man. He was buried in a sumptuous mausoleum on the outskirts of Baden-Baden-Baden – only to be re-buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave at the request of the Bach family.

And that would have been safely the end of the story, had it not been for the, er, singular industry of Professor Schickele, who was, um, lucky enough to uncover virtually every one of P.D.Q. Bach’s extant works, thereby unleashing them on an entirely new world. It’s not exactly history repeating itself, but it sure is history getting mighty tedious, and Schikele brings up the staggering possibility of a modern-day counterpart to his counterpoint hero:
In an article entitled “P. D. Q. Bach: Can It Happen Here?” appearing in the August 1973 issue of The Musical Hindquarterly, Professor Paul Behrer argues that one of the reassuring reasons that a P. D. Q. Bach could not flourish in twentieth-century America is the existence now of quite stringent copyright laws, and certainly the lack of such laws in eighteenth-century Germany allowed that aspect of P. D. Q. Bach’s style that has been called “manic plagiarism” to become developed to a degree that would be beyond the bounds of possibility in this day and age. As a general rule, the original passages in P. D. Q.’s music are due to his inability to remember how the piece that he was stealing from went.

Improved copyright laws seem like a mighty flimsy protection, but we’ll have to hope. On the one hand, it’s easy to say “the world isn’t ready – or willing – for another P.D.Q. Bach.” On the other hand, the 20h century saw a “composer” “produce” a “work” that consists of the orchestra sitting in silence while the audience watches, and audiences paid (and continue paying) to “hear” it. If that’s in any way artistically superior to kazoos, bullhorns, and woopee cushions, I don’t see how. Perhaps I need an unknown twig from the Bach family tree to enlighten me.


Sam said...

Hee, great ending to a fantastic run! Three cheers for nine lives!

(So no round-up of a John Cage biography, you're saying?)

JC said...

"an enthusiastic lack of interest"! Quite the opposite! I read this with listless fascination!