One day in August, 1953, my brother David, our friend Ernie and I got together at Ernie’s house to record the first movement of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. That was in the early days of home tape recorders, and Ernie was interested in the technical challenge of using two machines to overdub—matching the impedance and all that. David played the upper string parts on violin and viola, Ernie did the lower string parts on cello, and I played the solo flute, oboe and trumpet parts on bassoon, two octaves lower than they were intended to be played. The result sounded a bit like mud wrestling, but we had a good time doing it, and decided to get together again a week later for another overdubbing caper.
We had been listening to Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata during that time, and when we assembled on August 30, 1953, it was to record a piece that I had come up with called the “Sanka” Cantata, for baritone, violin, viola, cello, bassoon and keyboard (in this case a grand piano with pieces of paper spread over the strings in order to simulate—quite successfully, I feel—a harpsichord). We decided to put the work in the context of a radio broadcast, so the question arose: who wrote it? We knew about J.S. Bach, J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach and W.F. Bach, and one of us suggested, “Why not P.D.Q. Bach?” Exactly which one of us made that suggestion is lost in the mists of time: Ernie’s mother says it was Ernie, and she may very well be right, but Ernie himself (like the rest of us) doesn’t remember. What’s truly amazing is that a name suggested as a joke—PDQ, standing for “Pretty Damn Quick,” was the 1920’s equivalent of ASAP—should turn out to be correct; during the half a century that has passed since that fateful day in 1953, the existence of P.D.Q. Bach, like that of plate tectonics and the Big Bang, has come to be accepted by most thinking men and women.
One interesting aspect of the “Sanka” Cantata tape is that the voice delivering the commentary on the cantata is that of the 16-year-old David Schickele, not that of his 18-year-old brother, who appears as the announcer and interviewer. But the facts spoken by “Sir Osbronk Chapie, Bart.” have withstood the test of time, even if they are no longer disseminated by a baronet.
But to return to August, 1953: the completed tape was played for various members of our social/musical circle, and they all thought it was really terrific, and some of them weren’t even related to us by blood. So the tape was transferred to a 10" acetate disc (I can’t remember if more than one disc was cut; the experts at Sotheby’s will surely be called upon to deal with that question some day). The LP-style cardboard sleeve for the disc was graced, on the front, by David’s artwork, and, on the verso, by his seminal essay.
Ernie’s household at that time consisted of himself (Ernest Heath Lloyd), his mother, Isabelle Thompson (who was the concertmaster of the Fargo-Moorhead Community Orchestra and David’s teacher) and his stepfather, Sigvald Thompson (who was the conductor of the orchestra, and my first composition teacher). The libretto of the cantata is as follows:
Now some people may find it hard to accept as coincidence the fact that P.D.Q. Bach, almost two centuries ago, on the other side of the Atlantic, happened to know a family with the exact same names as those of the family who lived in the first floor west apartment of 63 North Terrace in Fargo, North Dakota; but listen, just because the odds of something happening are extremely small doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. I mean, the odds of any particular person winning an eight-figure sum in a lottery are many millions to one, and yet somebody wins. And how about this: Have you ever considered what an incredible coincidence it is that the sun and the moon appear to be the same size in the sky, that is, that the moon almost exactly eclipses the sun? There’s no reason for that, you know; it just happens to be true. Just like the two Thompson/Lloyd families. OK, you doubting Thomases, here’s the kicker: if you won ten million dollars in the lottery, would you refuse to accept the money because the chances of your winning it were unbelievably small? All right, then.
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