That bastard mongrel half-breed, the tromboon

To yesterday’s posting “Hybrid referent, portmanteau name” (mostly about the flumpet, with a bit on the fluba), Robert Coren added a comment about Peter Schickele / P.D.Q. Bach and his invention, the tromboon:


The tromboon is a musical instrument made up of the reed and bocal of a bassoon, attached to the body of a trombone in place of the trombone’s mouthpiece. It combines the sound of double reeds and the slide for a distinctive and unusual instrument. The name of the instrument is a portmanteau of “trombone” and “bassoon”. The sound quality of the instrument is best described as comical and loud.

The tromboon was developed by Peter Schickele, a skilled bassoonist himself, and featured in some of his live concert and recorded performances. Schickele called it “a hybrid – that’s the nicer word – constructed from the parts of a bassoon and a trombone; it has all the disadvantages of both”. This instrument is called for in the scores of P. D. Q. Bach’s oratorio The Seasonings, as well as the Serenude (for devious instruments) and Shepherd on the Rocks, With a Twist. (Wikipedia link)

Here I’m focusing on that’s the nicer word: just what did Schickele think (in 2008) was a less nice, more offensive, way to refer to a hybrid (more specifically, to someone of mixed race, which is probably where the insult vocabulary for hybrids is going to come from)? Specifically, what does an old white guy addressing a mostly white audience think might be a more offensive way to refer to hybrids? (A young black guy would probably insult a half-black half-white guy by calling him white.)

I see three possibilities: half-breed, mongrel, and bastard.

From NOAD:

noun half-breedoffensive a person whose parents are of different races, especially the offspring of an American Indian and a person of white European ancestry.

OED2’s entry has some transferred and figurative uses of half-breed: from Mark Twain, referring to one parent Northern, the other Southern; from Adlai Stevenson, referring to one parent Democrat and Presbyterian, the other Republican and Unitarian. An extension to referents other than people would be natural, and the term is widely used for dogs of mixed breed, occasionally for other animals and for plants, but rarely (if at all) for inanimates.

Meanwhile, mongrel starts with dogs and extends to other animals and then to people (but, apparently, rarely to plants or to inanimates, though it would be a natural metaphor). From NOAD2:

noun mongrel: [a] a dog of no definable type or breed: [as modifier]: a lovable mongrel puppy. [b] any animal resulting from the crossing of different breeds or types. [c] offensive a person of mixed descent. ORIGIN late Middle English: of Germanic origin, apparently from a base meaning ‘mix’, and related to mingle and among.

Finally, bastard, which is much more complex historically and sociolinguistically. From NOAD:

noun bastard: 1 [a] informal an unpleasant or despicable person: he lied to me, the bastard! [b] [with adjective] British informal a person of a specified kind: he was a lucky bastard. [c] British informal a difficult or awkward undertaking, situation, or device: it’s been a bastard of a week. 2 archaic or derogatory a person born of parents not married to each other.

adj. bastard: [attributive] 1 [a] (of a thing) no longer in its pure or original form; debased: a bastard Darwinism. [b] (of a handwriting script or typeface) showing a mixture of different styles. [further extended sense: a mixture of different elements] 2 archaic or derogatory born of parents not married to each other; illegitimate: a bastard child.

OED2 expands on adj. sense 1a:

4. fig. Not genuine; counterfeit, spurious; debased, adulterated, corrupt. [1st cite 1552]

5. Having the appearance of, somewhat resembling; an inferior or less proper kind of; esp. in scientific nomenclature applied to things resembling, but not identical with, the species which legitimately bear the name. [1st cite 1530] [specifically in botany: bastard rhubarb, bastard alkanet, bastard balm, bastard saffron, bastard toad-flax, etc. (a huge number of these); other uses in zoology / physiology, medicine, geology and mineralogy]

6. Of abnormal shape or irregular (esp. unusually large) size [e.g., bastard file “a file intermediate between the coarse and fine ‘cuts'”]

But it’s adj. sense 1b that’s potentially relevant to tromboons (and flumpets and flubas and all the rest): the sense ‘(illegitimate) mixture of elements’ shows up occasionally in things like “a sort of bastard violin, or “violin champêtre”” (from A History of the Violin by Sandys and Forster).

Schickele. Some notes on the musician, who came up on this blog in a 5/26/16 posting “Gerald Hoffnung”, with Hoffnung’s drawings of animal + instrument hybrids (hippopotamus + piano, caterpillar + accordion, turtledove + drum, python + bassoon) and the instrumental hybrid the string tuba; and with a reference to Schickele, but mostly a promissory note (now cashed out here).

There is a substantial Peter Schickele / P.D.Q. Bach website and a Wikipedia entry, from which:


Peter Schickele ( born July 17, 1935) is an American composer, musical educator, and parodist, best known for comedy albums featuring music written by Schickele, but which he presents as being composed by the fictional P. D. Q. Bach. He also hosted a longrunning weekly radio program called Schickele Mix [original broadcasts 1992-99, rebroadcasts until 2007].

… Besides composing music under his own name, Schickele has developed an elaborate parodic persona built around his studies of the fictional “youngest and the oddest of the twenty-odd children” of Johann Sebastian Bach, P.D.Q. Bach. Among the fictional composer’s “forgotten” repertory supposedly “uncovered” by Schickele are such farcical works as The Abduction of Figaro, Canine Cantata: “Wachet Arf!” (S. K9), Good King Kong Looked Out, the Trite Quintet (S. 6 of 1), “O Little Town of Hackensack”,  A Little Nightmare Music, the cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn, the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, The Art of The Ground Round (S. $1.19/lb.), Blaues Grasse (The Bluegrass Cantata), and perhaps best known of all, the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the “O.K. Chorale”. Though P.D.Q. Bach is ostensibly a Baroque composer, Schickele extends his repertoire to parody much more modern works such as Einstein on the Fritz, a parody of his Juilliard classmate Philip Glass.

His fictitious “home establishment,” where he reports having tenure as “Very Full Professor Peter Schickele” of “musicolology” and “musical pathology”, is the “University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople”, which is described as “a little-known institution which does not normally welcome out-of-state visitors”. To illustrate the work of his uncovered composer, Schickele invented a range of rather unusual instruments. The most complicated of these is the Hardart, a variety of tone-generating devices mounted on the frame of an “automat”, a coin-operated food dispenser. The modified automat is used in the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, a play on the name of proprietors Horn & Hardart, who pioneered the North American use of the automat in their restaurants.

Schickele also invented the “dill piccolo” for playing sour notes, the “left-handed sewer flute”, the “tromboon” (“a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of both”), the “lasso d’amore”, the double-reed slide music stand, which he described as having “a range of major third and even less expressiveness,” the “tuba mirum”, a flexible tube filled with wine, and the “pastaphone”, an uncooked tube of manicotti pasta played as a horn. Further invented instruments of his include the “pumpflute” (an instrument that requires two people to play: one to pump, and one to flute) and the “proctophone” (a latex glove attached to a mouthpiece, and “the less said about it, the better”). The überklavier or super piano, with a 15 octave keyboard ranging from sounds which only dogs can hear down to sounds which only whales can make, was invented in 1797 by Klarck Känt (pronounced “Clark Kent”), a Munich piano-maker who demonstrated the instrument for P.D.Q. A sample of a piece written for the überklavier, The Trance and Dental Etudes appeared in P.D.Q.’s unauthorized autobiography, published in 1976. P.D.Q’s Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons (1965) demonstrated the inherent musical qualities of everyday objects in ways not equally agreeable to all who listen to them.

To get some some feel for Schickele’s classic performances, check out the WQXR website posting on 12/9/15, “7 Hilarious Videos Celebrating P.D.Q. Bach”, including:

7. Schickele didn’t limit his satires just to shorter pieces; he set his sights on grand opera. The most ambitious of those works, The Abduction of Figaro, which premiered at the Minnesota Opera, was called “a crazed pastiche of the five major Mozart Operas,” by The New York Times in a review


6 Responses to “That bastard mongrel half-breed, the tromboon”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    One of the highlights of my years in the 1980’s was the annual PDQ Bach concert at Carnegie Hall. They were always packed, and the audience was skilled at attending them. When the “Stage Manager” walked on to announce that Prof Schickele was late, everyone would hiss. Then Schickele would make an entrance in some out of the ordinary way: one year he flew in, Tarzan-style, from the balcony clasping a rope.

    I remember attending the premiere of “The Seasonings”, as well as the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” with the late countertenor John Ferrante, the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, and “Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice”, an opera in one unnatural act.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I experienced the entry on a rope from the balcony in a Columbus performance — after dinner with Schickele, thanks to the lucky accident that an old Swarthmore friend of his was an OSU colleague of mine.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        I can add that in addition to being a bundle of manic energy — this is obvious from any of his P.D.Q. Bach performances — he’s also a very charming man.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      I saw him live in about 1965 (which is where I encountered the Tromboon) — I believe the program included the Concerto for Horn and Hardart, Iphigenia in Brooklyn and other things (actually, I’m calling to mind so many pieces that I think I might have seen him perform more than once). In this case he made his entrance by running down the aisle, pursued by two people in white coats carrying a strait-jacket. At the end of the concert, these attendants reappeared, and he fled back up the aisle.

      I’m mildly surprised that he was still doing these concerts as late as the 1980s.

      • chrishansenhome Says:

        It wouldn’t have been past the mid-1980’s, I don’t think. He is still giving concerts, but on a very restricted basis and I believe the Carnegie Hall concerts ended quite a while ago.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jim Unger on Facebook:

    An immortal excerpt from his cantata Iphigenia in Brooklyn:

    Recitative: “And in a vision Iphigenia saw her brother Orestes, who was being chased by the Amenities [!]; and he cried out in anguish: ‘Oh ye gods, who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows’.” [continuo: V-I]

    [Allegro, in cheerful sixteenths]
    Aria: “Ru-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-unning knows!” &c.

    Massive groans.

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