The incorrigibly eclectic, stylistically peripatetic American composer Peter Schickele may be best known for his “discoveries” of the work of P.D.Q. Bach – the Canine Cantata “Wachet Arf!”, the Pervertimento, the “Short-Tempered Clavier,” etc. – but he has an equally varied and extensive catalog of music under his own brand. He studied with A-list mid-century composers – Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Vincent Persichetti, and William Bergsma – but was equally influenced by the Everly Brothers and Spike Jones.
An accomplished multi-instrumentalist himself, he formed an avant-rock trio, Open Window, which served as the pit band for the controversial revue Oh! Calcutta! (including songs by Schickele in its score). He made arrangements for several major folk singers, including three mid-‘60s albums for Joan Baez. He scored the classic sci-fi eco-parable Silent Running (1971) and he arranged two segments of Fantasia 2000: the finale of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals for flamingos (one with a yo-yo) and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches for the story of Noah’s ark. He scored Sesame Street episodes and scored and narrated an animated version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1988).
He created a public radio show, Schickele Mix, which was “dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal” and ran for more than 175 episodes in the 1990s. That maxim is reflected in Schickele’s own compositions, where influences from bluegrass to Baroque mingle shamelessly in a style that was post-modern before its time and yet remains thoroughly in the moment.
The String Sextet that Schickele composed in 1990 is a case in point. “There’s a lot of European influence in there, very much out of a sort of Brahmsian background, even though you wouldn’t mistake it for Brahms, as well as all of the American and minimalist influences,” Schickele told an interviewer. “I guess there is a mixture there.”
That is an understatement. The Sextet’s six movements veer from manic to measured, from jazz fusion to a bluesy country waltz, with severe contrasts of tempo and texture sometimes phrase by phrase. The Brahms aura Schickele mentions is perhaps most apparent in the warmly reflective “Slow, Still” third movement, but there is everywhere an utter aptness of sonority that is also very Brahmsian. The music’s kinetic verve strongly suggests dance impulses, and choreographer Rebecca Rice used the work for her dance Deep Horizon in 2001.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.