The American composer and conductor Peter Schickele has made a remarkable career for himself as a musical humourist and satirist. As “Professor” Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople (U.S.N.D. at H.), he presents an annual series of discoveries by the supposed “last and least” member of the family of Johann Sebastian Bach, namely P.D.Q. Bach (1810-1742??). Eighteenth century music and the scholarly discipline of musicology are lampooned, sometimes on a grand scale as in the opera The Abduction of Figaro. As Otto Erich Deutsch did for Schubert, Ludwig von Köchel did for Mozart, and Alessandro Longo did for Scarlatti in cataloguing the works of these prolific composers, so to has Professor Schickele done for his creation. Each of P.D.Q. Bach’s works bears an S. number in the same way that a given piece of Mozart’s bears a K. number. The K. stands for Köchels-Verzeichnis, the thematic catalogue of Mozart’s works originally put together in the 19th century by Ludwing von Köchel. It is probably the only thematic catalogue of a composer’s work that is actually funny. There is his Notebook for Betty-Sue Bach (S. 13 going on 14), the Canine Cantata Wauchet Arf! (S. K9), the oratorio The Seasonings (S. 1 1/2 tsp.), and of course the Short Tempered Clavier: Preludes and Fugues in All the Major and Minor Keys Except the Really, Really Hard Ones (S. easy as 3.14159265). (Get it? Easy as π!)
In 1787, Mozart composed a funny divertimento he called Ein musikalischer Spaß (K. 522). Written for two horns and a string quartet, some have thought that it was Mozart’s lampooning of some of the incompitent musicians and composers of his time. It uses features unknown to music of the classical period. There are whole tone scales, asymmetrical phrasing, and polytonality. Polytonality is the feature where the music is in more than one tonal center at the same time. Composers such as Charles Ives, Darius Milhaud, and Igor Stravinsky would make great use of it later on. A whole tone scale is one which has no half-steps. Instead of reading C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C a whole tone scale reads C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C. The work of Claude Debussy often features whole tone scales.
Mozart was known to have a rather wicked sense of humour. He loved practical jokes. It should not be surprising, then, that a practical joke or two should make it into his music. When I first heard it, I was already well acquainted with Peter Schickele’s alter ego P.D.Q. Bach and some of his works. I almost thought for a second that this was something so wacky that Professor Schickele must have dreamed it up. But no, it’s Mozart! Here is the last movement of Ein musikalischer Spaß often translated as “A Musical Joke”. Jordi Savall directs Le Concert des Nations in this performance.