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February 2, 1999

Modern ComposersSchickele on a Lark. Peter Schickele, Sextet; String Quartet No. 2 ("In Memoriam"); Quintet No. 2 for Piano and Strings. The Lark Quartet, with help from Robert Rinehart, viola and Julia Lichten, cello, and featuring Peter Schickeke, piano. (Arabesque Recordings, CD # Z6719) 1998.

American composer Peter Schickele (b. 1935) has had a curiously bifurcated career. He is known to many listeners primarily as the musical satirist who "discovered" the work of P.D.Q. Bach. He also has a successful syndicated radio program, "Schickele Mix," available locally on WHIL-FM Friday evenings at seven, in which he wears the hat of humorist, commentator and popularizer of little-known works. But even as he plays the roles of clown or jester, he has successfully pursued a career as a composer of legitimate music. In this role, he has produced over a hundred works for symphony orchestras, choral groups, and chamber ensembles, composed scores for movies and television programs, and as a sideline has created arrangements for folk singers, including Joan Baez and Buffy Saint-Marie. He taught for a time at Julliard School of Music, but gave up teaching over thirty years ago to be a full-time composer. This new album from Arabesque Recordings contains three relatively recent chamber works that highlight the "serious" side of Schickele's work -- though an irrepressible sense of humor and playfulness are evident in these works as well.

The earliest of the three works is the String Quartet No. 2 ("In Memorium"), written in 1988 in honor of Schickele's brother-in-law, the "dissident Russian writer" Kiril Uspensky. The composer states that Uspensky's "sense of humor, sometimes playful and sometimes quite demonic, is associated...with the second movement of this quartet, and his seriousness with the fourth movement." A brief allusion in the second movement to the opening of Haydn's "Lark Quartet" is an homage to the group that commissioned the work and who perform all the works on the present album, augmented by an extra viola and extra cello for the sextet, and with the composer playing piano on the quintet.

The Sextet, written in 1990, is in six distinct movements, ranging in mood "from the very dramatic to the very easy-going," with a "symmetrical key pattern." Though the movements vary considerably, they are bound together by a common melodic thread that appears throughout the piece. The first movement opens with the principal theme stated in long flowing melodic lines over a throbbing ostinato in cellos. The movement, like all of the sextet except the fifth movement, is highly rhythmic but without definite meter. The fifth movement, marked "easy-going waltz tempo," is a light-hearted syncopated waltz, with plucked cello providing a rhythm section for the rest of the group. The third movement begins with a slow motif that evokes the rhythm of boats floating on a lake, then adds a melancholy melody in high strings, which alternates with a series of somewhat frenetic sections. Movement four, marked "fast and driving," and movement six are both fast, loud, and brash, with fragmentary melodic motifs in the higher strings combined with hammer-like chords from the cellos in 7/8 time. In the last movement the harmonic texture becomes highly dissonant and thick for the first time before reverting to the melodic themes introduced in the first movement and concluding in an abrupt finale. The entire sextet is highly disjointed rhythmically, but it all hangs together somehow and is all tied up in a neat package at the end. It is a distinctly American work from a distinctly eccentric composer.

You can hear Sextet by Peter Schickele on WHIL-FM (90.3) Thursday, February 4 at 7:30 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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