P.D.Q. Bach Bio

In the 17th and 18th centuries the name Bach was synonymous with fine musicmaking:  Johann Sebastian, certainly the biggest twig on the family tree, was both preceded and followed by many accomplished and well known musicians, some of whom were in the service of royalty.  It is easy to understand, therefore, why the Bach clan was loath to admit the existence of a member who was called a “pimple on the face of music,” “the worst musician ever to have trod organ pedals,” “the most dangerous musician since Nero,” and other things not quite so complimentary.  They even started a rumor that P.D.Q. Bach, without a doubt Johann Sebastian’s last and least offspring, was not really a member of the Bach family—the implication being that he was illegitimate, or, even better, an imposter.  Although P.D.Q. Bach was born on April 1, 1742 and died on May 5, 1807, the dates on his first tombstone (before he was moved to an unmarked pauper’s grave) were inscribed “1807-1742” in a transparent attempt to make it appear that he could not have been the son of J.S., who died in 1750.  Nice try, Bach family—close, but no cigar:  some of us, or at least one of us, are not fooled, or at least, is not fooled.  

P.D.Q. Bach once said that his illustrious father gave him no training in music whatsoever, and it is one of the few things he said that we can believe without reservation.  His rebelliousness was such, in fact, that he avoided music as much as possible until he was well into his thirties (as a teenager he did assist in the construction of the loudest instrument ever created, the pandemonium, but he wisely skipped town before the instrument’s completion, having sensed with uncanny accuracy, that the Pavilion of Glass was perhaps not the most felicitous location for the inaugural concert).  But by the mid 1770s he realized that, given his last name, writing music was the easiest thing he could do, and he began composing the works that were to catapult him into obscurity.

This most mini musical life has been divided into three creative periods:  the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition.  The middle period was by far the longest of the three, and was characterized by a multiplicity of contrapuntal lines and a greater richness of harmony due to almost constant double vision.  It was during this period that he emulated (i.e., stole from) the music of Haydn and Mozart, but his pathetic attempts to be au courant were no more successful than his pathetic attempts to be passé had been during the Initial Plunge;  having to cope with the problems that accompany immense popularity was something P.D.Q. Bach managed to avoid.  It has been said that the only original places in his music are those places where he forgot what he was stealing.  And, since his memory was even shorter than his sightedness, he was in point of fact one of the most original composers ever to stumble along the musical pike.

When you come right down to it, which is something we should all do every once in a while (As Plato said, —or was it Aristotle? —the unexamined life isn’t worth a hill of beans.  Maybe it was Socrates.), P.D.Q. Bach was perhaps not as pitiful as we are often led to believe:  he was, by all accounts, intimately acquainted with all three components of the proverbial wine/women/song life style, he died a wealthy man (due to a little patent medicine thing he had going on the side), and he can now boast 17 record albums and annual concerts in New York City devoted almost exclusively to his own music.  How many of us can say that?  Well, can you?

biographical notes provided by Prof. Schickele


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