A quodlibet is a piece of music combining several different melodies, usually popular tunes, in counterpoint and often a light-hearted, humorous manner. The term is Latin, meaning "whatever" or literally, "what pleases." There are three main types of quodlibet:
- A catalogue quodlibet consists of a free setting of catalogue poetry (usually humorous lists of loosely related items).
- In a successive quodlibet, one voice has short musical and textual quotations while the other voices provide homophonic accompaniment. The simultaneous quodlibet may be considered a historical antecedent to the modern-day musical mashup.
- In a simultaneous quodlibet, two or more pre-existing melodies are combined.
The origins of the quodlibet can be traced to the 15th century
, when the practice of combining folk tunes was popular. Composer Wolfgang Schmeltzl
first used the term in a specifically musical context in 1544. An early exponent of the genre was 16th century composer Ludwig Senfl
whose ability to juxtapose several pre-existing melodies in a cantus firmus
quodlibet resulted in works such as Ach Elselein/Es taget
, a piece noted for its symbolism
rather than its humor.. Even earlier we can find another example in Francisco de Peñalosa
's Por las sierras de Madrid
, from his Cancionero musical de palacio
. However, it was Praetorius
who, in 1618, provided the first systematic definition of the quodlibet as "a mixture of diverse elements quoted from sacred and secular compositions". During the Renaissance
, a composer's ability to juxtapose several pre-existing melodies, such as in the cantus firmus
quodlibet, was considered the ultimate mastery of counterpoint
19th century to today
The quodlibet took on additional functions between the beginning and middle of the 19th Century
, when it became known as the potpourri
and the musical switch
. In these forms, the quodlibet would often feature anywhere from six to fifty or more consecutive "quotations;" the distinct incongruity between words and music served as a potent source of parody and entertainment. In the 20th Century
, the quodlibet remained a genre in which well-known tunes and/or texts were quoted, either simultaneously or in succession, generally for humorous effect.
In the 16th century, an independent variant of the quodlibet named ensalada
developed in Spain, and the fricassée
likewise in France.
The word also refers to a mode of academic debate or oral examination (usually theological) in which any question could be posed extemporaneously. Quodlibet debates were popular in Western culture through the thirteenth century and are still in use today in Tibetan Buddhist theological training.
In the Classical repertoire
- A quodlibet is at the end of Bach's Goldberg Variations.
- Gallimathias Musicum, a 17 part quodlibet composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the age of ten.
- The masses of Jacob Obrecht, which sometimes combine popular tunes, plainsong and original music.
- Bach's Wedding Quodlibet or Quodlibet, which is not a quodlibet by the above definition but a ten-minute procession of nonsense, jokes, puns, obscure cultural references, word games, and parody of other songs. At times, the music imitates a chaconne and a fugue while deliberately obscuring the counterpoint. It is unlike any of Bach's other works, and a few scholars doubt its authenticity.