Thurber's Dogs

Peter Schickele

Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

There are so many loud, in-your-face, stand-up comics around these days, that the humor of James Thurber, E.B. White and their contemporaries seems positively genteel. But what saves Thurber?s (and Garrison Keillor?s) output from being hopelessly sentimental is a streak of nastiness that makes ignoring the nasty side of human beings impossible.

I have long been a fan of Thurber?s prose and drawings, so I eagerly accepted a commission to write a piece having some connection with his work. When the idea of basing the composition on the essays he wrote about was suggested, I liked it immediately, but as I read them (Thurber collected his dog material into one volume), I found that, although I loved reading the essays, my musical juices were more stirred up by the drawings. So I selected six of them and make up simple titles for the uncaptioned ones (all but the first and third of the suite).

Thurber?s work was lively but not gaudy, vernacular but not gross, and I hope that?s true of my piece as well. I certainly feel a kinship with his world: Fargo, North Dakota may be hundreds of miles from Columbus, Ohio, but there are certain things about midwestern cities that seem to be constant (although Thurber seems to have run into more eccentrics than I did, that?s for sure).

After a brief fanfare, the opening movement presents six distinct musical ideas and then throws them all together, which is, I suppose you could say, what a canine mother does when she creates a family. Long after completing the movement, I went back and looked at the drawing again, and noticed that it depicts five puppies, not six. Oh, well ? so much for program music.

In the third movement, I again used the technique of creating an orchestral refrain made up of several distinct thematic ideas or textures (a technique I probably picked up from Bach and Messiaen) ?textures that are then treated separately before being recombined ? but here the image in my mind was of a big, teeming, friendly bar. The West End Bar, at Broadway and 115th Street on the upper west side of Manhattan, was such a bar during my student days at Juilliard (which I attended in the pre-Lincoln Center days, when it was a few blocks from Columbia), and probably still is. You walk into a bar like that and there are all sorts of little plays going on: noisy plays, quiet plays, bravura plays, desperate plays, loquacious plays, terse plays, comedies, tragedies. There are five plays going on in the orchestral refrain heard soon after this movement begins. After the refrain is taken apart and put back together again, the piece degenerates into a rowdy drinking song.

The programmatic aspects of the other movements are all quite obvious. I should say, however, that as I was working on the last movement, I found myself thinking as much about the fox as about the hunting hounds. This, coupled with the fact that I recently acquired a recording of background music from the old movie serials that I used to go to as a kid, probably accounts for the quite ungentlemanly, almost lurid quality of the chase music.

"Thurber?s Dogs" was commissioned for the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus and The Thurber House to commemorate the 100th birthday anniversary of author James Thurber. It was completed on August 13, 1994.

Available on Rental

Additional Information

Composition Date 1994
Duration 00:20:00
Orchestration 2(Picc.) 2 2 2 - 2 2 0 0; Timp. Perc. Hp. Str.
Premiere 4th December, 1994. ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, conducted by Timothy Russell, Weigel Auditorium, Columbus, Ohio.


I A Litter of Perfectly Healthy Puppies Raised on Fried Pancakes
II Dog and Butterfly
III He Goes With His Owner Into Bars
IV Dog Asleep
V Dog at His Master?s Grave
VI Hunting Hounds