- Kerry Auer Fergus
And the word of the day is...
Updated: May 17, 2021
Let's learn something new today! As ever, when I set out to write, I hope to cater to aspiring musical theatre artists — particularly those with an interest in musical theatre who may lack the tools to dive deep into musical analysis. Musical literacy can be a godsend to the aspiring artist. That's what From Score to Stage is all about! With that in mind, I'm introducing a new subgenre of blog posts. We'll call them "The Word of the Day." The idea here is to introduce musical vocabulary that might otherwise be unfamiliar, but that will enrich your understanding of a musical score. Today's word... Quodlibet!
Okay, I have to be honest here. Half the reason I chose quodlibet is that it's just so fun to say. Quodlibet! Anyway, according to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians (I'm sure you all have a copy lying around the house), a quodlibet is "a composition in which well-known melodies or texts are presented simultaneously or successively, the result being humorous or displaying technical virtuosity... In a simultaneous quodlibet, two or more voices make use of preexisting musical material (and perhaps its text) at the same time, each consisting of either a patchwork of quotes or a single preexisting melody." 1 So what we're looking at here is an effect where multiple voices are layered on top of one another, typically where one or more is quoting a piece of music that you may have heard earlier in the work. The Harvard Dictionary goes on to list an example from a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, but just think about it for a moment — this is something we hear in musical theatre all the time! There are a lot of examples of quodlibets in musical theatre. Let's look at two famous examples.
First let's turn to Bernstein's West Side Story, specifically the "Tonight Quintet." As the Jets and the Sharks prepare for a violent confrontation, Tony and Maria sing of their undying love and Anita anticipates, well, getting "her kicks" with Bernardo. Do you hear how the various voices are layered on top of one another? Listen to how skillfully Bernstein brings forth each melody. There are three soloists and two choruses singing their hearts out here, and yet each musical idea gets its own moment to shine, including the oh-so-familiar "Tonight" melody. That masterful layering of voices is a quodlibet!
"Tonight Quintet" sung by the ensemble of the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story.
So now we've seen an example of a quodlibet from the 1950s. Let's move over to the 1980s where we'll find an excellent example of a quodlibet in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. For this, we're going to take a look at the final confrontation between Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom in the bowels of the opera house. There's a lot going on here at the end of Phantom, but you can skip ahead to the six-minute mark in the recording below to hear our quodlibet.
The original cast of The Phantom of the Opera sings the "Point of No Return Reprise."
In this final climactic showdown, Christine reprises the melody from "Angel of Music," the Phantom sings "The Point of No Return," and Raoul contributes a third melody that weaves in and around the two familiar tunes. This is quodlibet at its best! The reprise of these two recognizable melodies, but in particular the way they are woven together, makes for a particularly satisfying emotional climax.
With these two examples in mind, ask yourself this: Why might a composer choose to incorporate a quodlibet in his or her musical score? In both the "Tonight Quintet" and the "Point of No Return Reprise," the quodlibet functions as a narrative tool. These are moments of conflict - opposing viewpoints collide, many voices compete to be heard. Layering these voices allows the composer to heighten the drama of the moment. Consider how boring the Phantom finale would be if Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom took the time to express themselves one at a time. There's an inherent drama in a quodlibet. This makes it a valuable tool for the composer, particularly in moments of heightened tension.
So there you have it! Quodlibet — a layering of voices and a useful tool for amping up the drama in a theatrical moment.
1. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), s.v. "Quodlibet."