Definition of a Quodlibet

(Lat. ‘What you please’), also called Quotlibet (‘As many as you please’), and in Italian Messanza or Mistichanza (‘A mixture’).

This was a kind of musical joke in the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries, the fun of which consisted in the extempore juxtaposition of different melodies, whether sacred or secular, which were incongruous either in their music character, or in the words with which they were associated.

Sometimes, however, the words were the same in all parts, but were sung in snatches and scraps as in the quodlibets of Melchoir Franck.

There were two ways of performing this:

  1. To string the melodies together simply and without any attempt at connecting them by passages such as those found in modern ‘fantasias’
  2. The more elaborate method consisted in singing or playing the melodies simultaneously, the only modifications allowed being those of time.

The effect of this, unless only very skillful musicians engaged in it, must have been very like what we now call a ‘Dutch chorus.’

This pastime was a favorite one with the Bachs, at whose annual family gatherings the singing of quodlibets was a great feature.

Sebastian Bach himself left one delightful example of a written-down quodlibet, at the end of the ’30 variations’ in G major. The two tunes used in it are ‘Ich bin so lang bei dir nicht gewest,’ and ‘Kraut und Ruben, Haven mich vertrieben.’

One of the two best modern examples, although only two themes are used, is in Reinecke’s variations for two pianos on a gavotte of Gluck’s, where, in the last variation, he brings in simultaneously with the gavotte the well known musette of Bach which occurs in the third ‘English’ suite.

A good instance, and one in which the extempore character is retained, is the singing of the three tunes ‘Polly Hopkins,’ ‘Buy a Groom,’ and ‘The Merry Swiss Boy’ together, which was formerly sometimes done for a joke.

A very interesting specimen of a 16th century quodlibet by Johann Goldel, consisting of five chorale tunes:

  1. ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’
  2. ‘Ach Gott, von Himmel’
  3. ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’
  4. ‘Wir glauben all’
  5. ‘Durch Adam’s Fall’

Below is a few bars as an example of the ingenuity with which the five melodies are brought together.