Music Monday: Schickele: Summer Serenade

So one of the great things about volunteering at Tuesdays @ Monk Space, a new music series out here in LA, is that the artists will often bring CDs of theirs, often of repertoire that hasn't been recorded anywhere else, and I like buying these CDs because 1) they're often cheaper than they would be in a store and 2) more of the money goes directly to the artists instead of some third party like Amazon. One of the less great things is that sometimes these CDs are special pre-release copies and I can't share the rad stuff on them with anyone because it isn't anywhere online. Such was the case with The Wayward Trail, a CD I picked up last time of microtonal guitar music played masterfully by Elliot Simpson. I was all set to share one of the pieces on it, only to realize that it is simply nowhere to be found on the internet.

Catastrophe! Fortunately for us, there are other pieces of music in the world, and many of them have been recorded. Ironically enough, the last time I looked for a recording of the piece I'm sharing today, I came up with zilch, and it was only about the same time as I got the CD mentioned above that I discovered that this gem was online. So a symmetry of sorts: One piece definitely recorded but nowhere to be found, replaced by another long thought unavailable but surprisingly there when needed.

[Here's where the post really begins, for those who don't care about my blogging misadventures.] Peter Schickele (b 1935) is undoubtedly best known for his work with the music of PDQ Bach, the youngest and oddest of JS Bach's twenty odd children, but he's also a talented composer in his own right. His youthful musical environments were perhaps not the richest — he was the only bassoonist in Fargo, and subsequently the only music major in his class at Swarthmore (1957) — but he wound up studying with many of the giants of mid-century musical education, including Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, and Vincent Persichetti. When he was only 26, he landed a teaching job at Juilliard, but, even more remarkably, he was able to quit four years later to embark on a career as a freelance composer. He's managed to keep this up right thru to the present — he currently lives with his wife in upstate New York and isn't affiliated with any institution (occasional research work on PDQ Bach at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople notwithstanding). 

It's difficult to fully evaluate Schickele's concert music. In part, this is due to his relative obscurity — he's written everything from sonatas to film scores, but very little of it has made its way into the standard repertoire, and I don't think I've ever heard any of it live — and the time period — the 50s to the 80s (roughly) in American concert music are often presented as a time when Integral Serialists and other High Modernists had a stranglehold on new music channels, but there were many composers working in more eclectic waters in ways that, I suspect, helped lay the groundwork for considerable chunks of the present musical moment in ways that I haven't seen clearly elucidated in what little history of it I've been able to find. Mostly, tho, this is because his concert work has been completely overshadowed by the sheer delightful absurdity of his work with PDQ Bach, next to which all but the most illustrious career would seem drab and humdrum. This is especially so for me, since the Beethoven's Fifth Sportscast [YouTube] — a piece that, even if not credited to the mini-meister of Wein-am-Rhein, is very much in his spirit — is directly responsible for my getting into classical music in the first place.

Casting aside that story for another day, let's turn to the piece at hand. The Summer Serenade dates from 1989 (with some revisions in 1995), and is Schickele's first bassoon piece. Unlike other pieces with seasons in the title, it doesn't have an overt program, but it does capture something of the spirit of long warm days and idle afternoons. The first movement, "Dreams", opens with a gentle, wafting pulse, lyrical fragments drifting in idle air. Soon enough, however, we slip into a whirlwind fantasy, with stark lines trading off with ever-changing undulations. After much back-and-forth, this builds to a violent climax with wildly held-out bassoon notes and dissonant, thumping piano chords. Another episode of expanding undulation swells up, but it quickly fades into one last percussive interjection before the echoes of the opening drift back to bring the movement to a close.

Kooky, bouncy melodies dominate "Games", the music romping thru a variety of irregular meters. At one point, the left hand of the piano obstinately blots out a delicate right-hand figuration, ushering in a turbulent section in which the bassoon and piano pay no attention to each other's bar lines. This doesn't last, tho, and the movement ends with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "Songs and Dances" begins with the solo bassoon honking out its lowest note to usher in a giddy rush of scampering flurries. Despite the clear dichotomy of the movement's title, there's no hard distinction drawn between singing music and dancing music; lyricism and rhythmic propulsion abound. Eventually, the music breaks out into a greatly expanded version of the first movement's opening, but this decays into a brief pool of quietude and nostalgia. At last, some deep, cryptic resolution takes place, and the piece goes out with a good-natured romp.