Peter Schickele, although an accomplished composer, musicologist, performer, and radio host, is better known for "discovering" the musical works of P.D.Q. Bach, the fictional last and least son of J.S. Bach.
Schickele grew up in an amateur musical family in Washington, D.C., and in Fargo, where he became the town's only bassoonist. His composition teacher was the conductor of the Fargo-Moorhead Orchestra, Sigvald Thompson. Schickele went on to become the only music major at Swarthmore College. By the time he graduated in 1957, he had composed chamber music, songs (including rock & roll songs), and four orchestral works, and he was also arranging music for dance bands and jazz groups. He was struck by the music of Hindemith, Bartók, Elvis, and Ray Charles, but particularly by Stravinsky and the Everly Brothers.
He stopped being a loner and started studying with Roy Harris and Darius Milhaud, then William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard. He received a Ford Foundation grant to compose for the Los Angeles high schools, then became a teacher himself at Juilliard from 1961 to 1965. Since then, he has dedicated himself to composing, arranging, and performing, based in New York City where he and his wife, poet Susan Sindall, make their home.
He began arranging music for Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and other folk singers. He created music for movies, including Silent Running; documentaries; and TV, including segments for Sesame Street. From 1968 to 1971, he and fellow composers Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden were the Open Window, a chamber rock group that played in solo and mixed media concerts and with symphony orchestras. They also wrote songs and were the pit band for the musical Oh, Calcutta!
After that, he concentrated on writing and performing the increasingly popular music of P.D.Q. Bach. The Bach works are a mixture of satires on, spoofs of, and homages to a whole range of classical masterpieces. The music had been heard in concerts at end-of-season events at Juilliard and the Aspen Music Festival since 1959. Public concerts of this music began in 1965 and have spawned over a dozen recordings (a few winning Grammy awards) and The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach, by the "discoverer" of these works, "Professor" Peter Schickele.
In 1992, he began the public radio program Schickele Mix, a musicologically educational, but entertaining, survey that draws connections between everything from the music of the ancient world to Bach to Motown. The show was given ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award in 1993.
As well as serving as composer-in-residence at schools and festivals, Schickele has received numerous commissions for new works from such varied organizations as the Saint Louis Symphony, the Minnesota Opera, the Lark and Audubon quartets, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He also frequently writes "personal" pieces, many of them rounds, as trinkets to commemorate friends and events.