"A musical blight"
"A one-man plague"
"History's most justifiably neglected composer"
"The worst musician ever to trod organ pedals" "A pimple on the face of music"
In this long-awaited hoax, possibly the most unimportant piece of scholarship in over two thousand years, Professor Peter Schickele has finally succeeded in ripping the veil of obscurity from the most unusual -- to put it kindly -- composer in the history of music: P.D.Q. Bach, the last and unquestionably the least of the great Johann Sebastian Bach's many children.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||17 MB|
|Note:||This product may take a few minutes to download.|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
EARLY INFANCY (1742–1745)
IT1 was cold and dark and wet in Leipzig on the night of the 31st of March 1742. The darkness was not unexpected, but the extreme cold was without precedent, and it had been raining incessantly for three weeks, as if in preparation for some dire event.
In the home of the Cantor of St. Thomas’ Church, however, it was warm and light and dry, due to the large sheaf of Vivaldi manuscripts burning in the fireplace.2
At fifty-seven, Johann Sebastian Bach was at the height of his creative powers, a position he had maintained for over fifty years, ever since he started composing small works for the organ at Lüneburg.3 One can imagine him working feverishly on part IV of his Clavierübung4 with nothing but a few concerti grossi for light, only dimly aware, at the height as he was of his creative powers, that in the adjoining room his second wife was giving birth to his twenty-first child. Since there was obviously very little novelty in the situation, Bach probably barely looked up when the midwife announced that “something has been born”;5 upon seeing the child, however, the master’s initial indifference gave way to a feeling of benign antipathy, a feeling which remained constant for the eight years of life that were left to him. At the age of five, the boy still had not been given a name, and it was only after repeated exhortations by his eldest brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, that his father bestowed upon him, not a name, but—at least—three initials: P. D. Q. When Wilhelm Friedemann asked what the initials stood for, his father said they stood for nothing, which indeed could be said of P. D. Q. himself later in his life. Old Johann Sebastian added something about using up all the available names on his first twenty children, and years later P. D. Q. Bach wrote to a friend, “In all truthfulness I can say that to this day I have no idea as to what, if anything, my name represents.” In the same letter he attributed his frequent headaches to the fact that he had been christened in a shipyard rather than in a church.
And so it was that on that cold, dark, wet night in Leipzig (at one minute after midnight, to be precise), there came into this world one of the most curious figures in the entire history of music in Western Civilization; a man who did not change the course of music one iota, a man who defined definitively the doctrine of originality through incompetence, a man who triumphed over the most staggering obstacle ever placed before a composer: absolute and utter lack of talent. In the years that followed, P. D. Q. Bach steadfastly ignored handicaps that would have sent other men into teaching or government, resulting in a body of works that is without parallel.
Many great composers were ignored during their own lifetime, but P. D. Q. stands out as a monument to ignorance. Not only was he ignored at a very early age, as we have already seen, but one might even say that he was prenatally ignored, since Anna Magdalena Bach had given away all her maternity clothes after her thirteenth (J. S. Bach’s twentieth) child was born.2 Thus exposed to the wind and sun during the day, and to the low temperatures, lack of light, and dampness of the cold, dark, wet Leipzig nights, the young lad (or “boy,” as his father called him) soon developed a thick skin which was to serve him well in later years. But although he was ignored, he was not mistreated, and he seems to have had a pleasant childhood, spending most of his time doing all the florid little things that Baroque children did. He was too young to be doing any copying for his father, he was even too young to be pumping the bellows of the church organ (although he did occasionally crawl under the keyboard while his father was playing and sit on one of the pedals; the resulting musical effect is known as a pedal point, and throughout his life P. D. Q. expressed his preference for pedal point over counterpoint and even needlepoint), so he simply played games and ran away from home a few times.3
If we attempt to find the seeds of P. D. Q. Bach’s personality as a composer in the events of these first three formative years, we will be hard put indeed to do so. In the first place, information on this period is very spotty, since it consists entirely of entries in Johanna Carolina Bach’s leopard-skin diary; in the second place, there was virtually nothing, since most of the family records were lost when they moved from the first place.
P. D. Q. Bach was the last, and by all means the least, of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children, and he was certainly the oddest of the lot. So much so, in fact, that we are tempted to wonder whether old J. S. really was still at the height of his creative powers, until we remember that in the life of an artistic giant the spirit can function quite distinctly from the flesh; the towering genius that was Bach had already sired a ne’er-do-well, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, whose principle activity in life was getting into debt and letting his father bail him out, and also an idiot son, Gottfried Heinrich; Wilhelm Friedemann reputedly drank to excess, and according to one source Christian Gottlieb was mixed up in dealings of dubious legality with members of the underworld.4 Thus we see that P. D. Q., possessing as he did a combination of many of the traits of previous Bach children, can in a sense be regarded as a summation of Bach the father, just as The Art of the Fugue is a summation of Bach the composer. In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, P. D. Q. possessed the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.
P. D. Q.’s early infancy ended with a striking decision; at the age of three, P. D. Q. Bach decided to give up music.
1 i.e., the weather, according to the unique diary kept throughout his entire life by the Margrave Bernhard Erich von Brandigburg (1738-1743); in it he recorded in minute detail each day’s weather conditions, and nothing else. It was published in forty-three volumes by Schlaff of Düsterburg in 1762, but by then the weather of Bernhard Erich’s time was considered dull and old-fashioned, and consequently it aroused little interest until the 1840’s, when Felix Memmessohn’s enormously popular “Baroque Weather Reports” started a renaissance of early weather research which has continued unabated to the present day.
2 Johann Sebastian Bach, whenever he came into possession of a manuscript by another composer, used to make his own arrangement of the work and then burn the original, thus cornering the market. Fortunately, his arrangements were better than the original works—or were they?
3 “Small Work No. 1 for the Organ,” Bach’s first composition, has been lost.
4 Keyboard Übung.
5 This unfortunate phrase was overheard by the new arrival, and it rankled him for the rest of his life.”
1 historically speaking, that is. Musically the body of works contains many parallels, especially fifths and octaves.
2 One can hardly blame her.
3 “Walked away from home” would be more accurate. P. D. Q.’s laziness manifested itself right from the beginning; as a tiny baby he discovered that even crying took more effort than it was worth, except during concerts and services.
4 The fact that C. G. died at the age of three, however, casts a shadow of suspicion on this accusation.