Eriksmoen: Sole professor at fictitious University of Southern North Dakota became an acclaimed musician, composer
That graduate, Peter Schickele, refers to the fictional school as “a little-known institution which does not normally welcome out-of-state visitors.” Schickele, from Fargo, composed more than 100 works for symphony orchestras, choral groups and chamber ensembles. He also composed music for motion pictures and the theater and received four Grammy Awards.
Schickele is perhaps best-known for the development of “an elaborate parodic persona built around his studies of the fictional character, P.D.Q. Bach, the youngest and oddest of the twenty-odd children of Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Johann Peter Schickele was born on July 17, 1935, in Ames, Iowa, to Rainer and Elizabeth (Wilcox) Schickele. Rainer was an agricultural economics professor at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University in Ames, where Peter attended grade school.
In 1945, the family moved to Washington, D.C., when Rainer became an instructor at George Washington University. In 1946, Rainer accepted the position of chairman of the Agricultural Sciences Department at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) in Fargo.
Peter Schickele’s high school picture while at Fargo’s Central High School. Special to The Forum
In Fargo, Peter attended Central High School, focusing heavily on music. He was in the school band, pep band, marching band, orchestra and woodwind quartet, and he also he also sang in the glee club and the school’s a cappella group. Peter was an excellent bassoon player and became a featured musician with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. He said his fondest memories were “writing, directing, and performing in theatrical sketches which were presented at various parties throughout the (Fargo) community.”
Peter graduated from Central in 1952 and then enrolled at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, Penn. To me, this was puzzling because even though Swarthmore was an excellent private liberal arts college, the school did not have a music department and had only one part-time music instructor.
The puzzle pieces later came together, however, after I learned the background of Rainer Schickele, who was born and raised in Germany but fled his home country with the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler. It bothered him greatly to see certain groups of people (Jews, Gypsies, also known as Roma, communists, gays, etc.) singled out and punished because of who they were.
In the latter 1940s and early 1950s, he feared he was seeing the same thing happening in this country with the creation of the House Un-American Committee and the accusatory bombasts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. When Peter enrolled, Swarthmore was becoming known as a bastion that was against labeling citizens as un-American.
Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, who was two years ahead of Peter at school, wrote, “Swarthmore was a hotbed of anti-McCarthy sentiment during the 1950s.” He added that he found himself in “a community of scholars, students, and activists that took McCarthy on, and beat him.”
Carl Levin, a future U.S. Senator from Michigan who was one year ahead of Peter, wrote about the actions that he and other Swarthmore students and faculty took to make certain that McCarthy was censured by the Senate.
Peter Schickele wrote, “When I arrived at Swarthmore in 1952, the music department consisted of Alfred Swan, who also taught at Haverford, and I was the only music major. For some reason, music composition was the only applied art course offered in those days, and I took Dr. Swan’s composition course every semester.”
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While at Swarthmore, Schickele spent much of his time composing music. Schickele wrote that, during his junior year, “a well-known composer agreed to look at several of my compositions, and his advice was to transfer, immediately, to a school that took music seriously.” Schickele ignored that advice because of the support he was receiving from the college, community, faculty and other students.
In 1956, he became the first music major to graduate from Swarthmore in the school’s 90 years of existence. To further his education as a composer, Schickele enrolled at the famed Julliard School of Music in New York City. While there, he studied composition with Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Vincent Persichetti and William Bersma.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Schickele had been a fan of Spike Jones and learned the enjoyment of mixing humor with music from him. In 1959, Schickele teamed up with conductor Jorge Mester to present a humorous concert. The concert was so popular that it became an annual event at the college, despite the fact that Schickele displeased a number of Julliard administrators by entering the stage from a rope attached to the ceiling. The administrators may not have seen the humor in Schickele swinging from a rope like Tarzan, but the audience loved it.
Schickele graduated from Julliard in 1960 with a master’s degree in musical composition, and in 1965, he moved his concerts to the Town Hall in New York City and invited the public. His first concert was recorded by Vanguard Records, and with the release of “Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach,” the compositions of Schickle’s alter-ego were launched.
Most of the releases of Vanguard were classical compositions, but they also had some folk singers under contract. Their most popular singer was Joan Baez, and after recording several gold albums of folk songs, she “decided to experiment with different styles. Baez turned to Schickele, who provided classical arrangements and orchestration for her next three albums: ‘Noel’ in 1966, ‘Joan’ in 1967, and ‘Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time’ in 1968.”
In 1969, Schickele joined two other Julliard alumni, Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden, who, like Schickele, were also talented musicians and composers, to form the trio Open Window. They put out three albums for Vanguard, and their most ambitious project was composing, arranging and performing the music for the avant-garde theatrical presentation of “Oh! Calcutta!”
We will conclude the Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at [email protected]