ClassicsOnline Home » SCHICKELE, P.: Year in the Catskills (A) / Gardens / Dream Dances / Diversions (Blair Woodwind Quintet, Felix Wang, M. Rose)
Whether writing under his own name or that of his alter ego P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Schickele writes music which is a constant delight, full of variety, energy and fun. A Year in the Catskills is a five-movement quintet—a seasonal retrospective suffused with clever baroque tints, elements of pastoral fantasy, and a jazzy finale to dissipate any feelings of melancholy. The other works offer a variety of combinations and textures. Gardens illustrates Schickele’s appealing use of colour, whilst Dream Dances is a jaunty frolic from the baroque sarabande to the jitterbug. Diversions goes one better, with movements devoted both to billiards and a New York bar; music of huge vitality and great wit.
Peter Schickele (b. 1935)
A Year in the Catskills Gardens • What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House? • Dream Dances • Diversions
Like other American composers before him—Gottschalk and Ives spring to mind, as do Gershwin and Bernstein—Peter Schickele embraces all levels of American musical styles and traditions in his eclectic work. Unlike other American composers, however, he also created a fictional musical character, P.D.Q. Bach, through whom he satirizes and parodies Baroque and Classical musical styles as well as the musicologists who study them. (Surely Ives would have approved.) The result is a body of music for the concert stage, film, television, and theater that is often infused with much good humor, and a repertory of satirical pieces that reveal keen and sometimes serious understanding of stylistic practices and historical detail.
The son of immigrants, Schickele was born in Ames Iowa and raised in Washington D.C. and Fargo, North Dakota. His family was musical and played much chamber music, a practice to which Schickele has attributed his early knowledge of string quartets. Although he played the bassoon—he claimed to have been the only bassoonist in Fargo, North Dakota—he gravitated early to composition. After graduating from Swarthmore in 1957, Schickele studied composition with Roy Harris and Darius Milhaud, both of whom were notable influences, before attending the Juilliard School, where he studied with Vincent Persichetti. Schickele’s parodistic tendencies were apparent early: he performed a humorous concert with conductor Jorge Mester while still a Juilliard student, and in 1965 he performed a similar concert at Town Hall, New York, that introduced the public to P.D.Q Bach. Two years later he formed a “chamber-rock-jazz” trio called Open Window that performed his chamber works. This blending of styles has often resulted in the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous musical resources, such as the amplified keyboards (piano, organ, and harpsichord) and orchestra for The Fantastic Garden (1968), “rock group” and orchestra for Requiem Mantras (1972), or bluegrass band and orchestra for Far Away from Here (1984). But his grasp on these resources is generally firm and has resulted in Schickele’s receiving honorary doctorates (Swarthmore, 1980; North Dakota State University, 1995), several GRAMMY® awards, and ongoing commissions for new works.
Schickele’s chamber works, and those for woodwinds in particular, have been described by musicologist Deane Root as “strongly tonal…[and] postmodern in their small forms, neo-romantic in their light, impressionistic textures, and neo-classical in their instrumentation, meter and mood.” Root’s need to use disparate stylistic terms to describe Schickele’s music further suggests Schickele’s diversity and range. The composer, perhaps in part owing to his background as a bassoonist, is especially attracted to the challenges of composing for woodwind ensembles, the various possible combinations of which make possible all the characteristics earlier described by Root. Schickele commented on this attraction to interviewer Angela Fox, noting that the sound of each wind instrument is different and that “the French horn, well, that isn’t even a woodwind and so it can really stick out. The blending is tricky—so while I want to take advantage of the variety, I also want to explore the blending.” Schickele’s explorations are a listener’s delight.
A Year in the Catskills, the major new work on this collection, was, like several other pieces, especially commissioned from Schickele for the ensemble premiering it. Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music is fortunate enough to have the Blair Commissioning Project, funded by the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation, which allows each of the school’s faculty ensembles to pick a composer and ask her or him for a new work. The Woodwind Quintet decided on Schickele, whose background suggested to flutist Jane Kirchner that he was the man for the job: “We felt we needed a composer who understands these instruments—and Schickele is a bassoonist as well as an incredible composer.” Something else was part of the mix, noted Kirchner. “We also love this man’s humor, because, even though we take music seriously, we find much joy in our work, too.”
The joy Kirchner spoke of is immediately evident in the Blair Quintet’s recording of A Year in the Catskills, a five-movement work that beautifully demonstrates Schickele’s versatility. The composer has described Spring: Fantasy, the first movement, as a pastoral fantasy, and its vacillation between whimsical and more reflective passages foreshadows the contrasts of the subsequent movements. Summer: Imitations, the second movement, is aptly named in that it is a series of canons, a compositional device especially popular in the Baroque era (ca. 1600–1750) in which a melody is heard in one voice and then imitated in its entirety in one or more subsequent voices. For much of the time in this movement, the instruments imitate each other a single beat apart, about which Schickele noted, “It’s one of my favorite textures.” The third movement, Fall: Variations, also recalls Baroque canon techniques, in this case a set of canonic variations based on the bass line from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Schickele based his earlier New Goldberg Variations (1995) for cello and piano on the same melody.) The bassoon repeats the bass line while the other instruments play a series of playful variations over it, and if, by Schickele’s admission, some of the ideas for these variations were left over from the earlier work, they nonetheless sound fresh and perfectly suited for this instrumentation. Winter: Lament, which follows, is perhaps the most evocative of the movements, although it is more melancholy than profoundly tragic. This movement features exquisite solos for the oboe and unaccompanied clarinet. Schickele has described the work’s finale as “a bebop jazz kind of thing,” and although fans of Charlie Parker might have a hard time finding the essence of bebop in the fast movement, a more general feeling of jazz greatly contributes to the movement’s effect.
The other works included here combine winds and, on several occasions, other instruments to further demonstrate the scope of Schickele’s writing. For instance, Gardens, a triptych for oboe and piano, suggests a post-impressionist concern with color and irregular structures, while What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House? is a playful trio of memory pieces drawn from the composer’s experiences with a childhood friend that ends with a boogie-woogie flourish. The suite Dream Dances contrasts dances expected in a Baroque suite—a minuet and sarabande, for instance—with a jitterbug and a galop that tips its hat to Rossini. Finally, Diversions, for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, reaches into decidedly unexpected musical territories: while Bath, the first movement, is contemplative, Billiards, according to the composer, provides “sound equivalents of the way in which billiard balls set each other in motion,” and Bar is meant to evoke a bar on the West Side of New York City.
According to Deane Root, Peter Schickele is “one of the most widely performed and published of contemporary composers,” and this highly satisfying collection of pieces for winds (and friends) suggests why. Engaging, intelligent, and never too serious, these works, especially in these performances, delight.