This is going to be a pretty geeky series of posts, with a necessary amount of music theory included, but, I hope, no more than necessary.
There’ll be three parts, dedicated to what I’m calling The Berlin Quodlibet, The West Side Quodlibet, and The Dancin’ Quodlibet (this last will contain Ideas For the Future).
Terminology first: in music, generally, a quodlibet (from the Latin, meaning “what pleases”, and it’s pronounced just as it looks) occurs any time previously-heard melodies are played at the same time. In musical theatre, specifically, the word has come to mean the practice of laying out one vocal melody first, followed by another vocal melody later, only to reveal, finally, that these melodies work when sung together.
As for my use of that key word – that the melodies ‘work’ – I desire much from a musical theatre quodlibet. I desire that:
- The melodies please, individually.
- The melodies please even more when combined.
- I can’t hear it coming.
- The revelation has some dramatic function.
A quick note: we’re not talking here about little moments of counterpoint, because while all quodlibets employ counterpoint, not all instances of counterpoint qualify as a quodlibet. We’re also not talking about leitmotifs, although – as you’ll see in the later Les Misérables example – leitmotifs are sometimes used in quodlibets, as if to announce “Hey, remember this person’s tune? It fits over this other one!”
Lastly, we’re not talking about what’s known as the Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number. Some of those are quodlibets, but not all are.
So, I’m going to lay out the main types of musical theatre quodlibets and how they work. After that, I’m going to suggest some types I haven’t heard yet, and hope everyone gets to work writing them.
The Berlin Quodlibet
(aka Double Song, or Counterpoint Song) – Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression
This is probably, in most people’s minds, the classic form of the musical theatre quodlibet: You’re Just in Love, from Call Me Madam is a witty and graceful example. Irving Berlin writes to this chord progression:
If you know your harmony, you’ll recognise right away that this is simply a long stretch of tonic, moving away to the dominant. After this, the next eight bars sit on the dominant, before returning to the tonic. If this is technobabble to you, don’t worry: the most important thing to know is that Berlin has given himself, with these chord choices, a vast range of options for melody-writing.
Over this chord progression, Berlin writes two complementary melodies – longer phrases with a wide range for the lovesick Kenneth Gibson, and shorter, syncopated phrases with a smaller range for Kenneth’s brash boss Sally Adams. Here’s an excerpt of the full 32 bars:
Students of strict Renaissance polyphony might look at these two melodies and wonder: are those seconds and ninths between D and E a problem? Are those diminished fifths and augmented fourths displeasing to the ear?
No, they’re not. Apart from their regular use in almost every form of music for the last hundred years (you’ll probably hear them a dozen times today), those little dissonances – by Renaissance standards – simply don’t register as long as they’re not exposed, and as long as the rhythm of the melody carries the listener’s ear forward. Trust me, you can get away with things that would have killed Fux if your two tunes fit the underlying chord progression.
Hallmarks of the Berlin Approach
Berlin was especially good at these kinds of quodlibets, which is why I think we should name them after him. There’s a comprehensive list of his output here, including several he composed over tunes not his own. If you’re planning to write a Berlin quodlibet, you could do a lot worse than follow the kind of example he sets in You’re Just In Love, because:
1. The chord progression allows for melodic freedom. With the exception of Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil, which is pretty bluesy, Berlin used the same chords for all his most famous quodlibets (I, ii, IV, V, I7, II7, and the occasional passing diminished chord). These chords might seem like, as the lyrics for Play a Simple Melody put it, good old-fashioned harmony, but they allowed Berlin the freedom to write two thumping good tunes.
2. The melodies have individual character, before they’re combined. In You’re Just In Love, Sally sounds like Sally, even without her lyrics, and Kenneth sounds like Kenneth. You couldn’t sensibly swap their tunes. Then, with their lyrics added, their characters are even further enhanced. Sally gets most of the consonants, in “pitter-patter” and “pleasant ache”, and Kenneth gets most of the open vowel endings, in “trees are bare” and “I wonder why”. Berlin combined similarly romantic and jazzy melodies earlier, with Play a Simple Melody, and again later, with An Old-Fashioned Wedding.
3. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Look at how beautifully the two melodies in You’re Just In Love give each other room, rhythmically and harmonically. The phrases start and end on different beats, and when longer notes are held, the other melody uses different degrees of the accompanying chord (for example, while a bar of G to G6 is happening, Kenneth holds a long b, while Sally sings e, d and g). Thus, to hear these two tunes together is to hear more than just two tunes piled one of top of the other.
4. There’s a dramatic point to the quodlibet. You’re Just in Love doesn’t represent a major turning point in its parent musical (the song was a late addition to the show), but nevertheless, Kenneth poses a question, Sally answers it, and their friendship is strengthened, all through song.
Even in 1914’s Play a Simple Melody, when a dramatic point was not the point, the ingenue (Ernesta Hardacre – no, really) yearns for songs of the past, before Algy Cuffs (true, I promise) demands up-to-date ragtime; the quodlibet then points out that we can all have both, at the same time, and harmoniously.
In 1966’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Frank Butler predicts, in An Old-Fashioned Wedding, that he’ll vow to love Annie Oakley forever, while she’ll “vow to love and honor and obey”. When his part is combined with Annie’s their two sets of lyrics match up: her line “love and honor, yes, but not obey” follows immediately after Frank’s. They’re arguing, good-naturedly, in song, and Berlin must have planned this beforehand, musically and lyrically. It seems effortless; it’s kind of wonderful.
Some Other Berlin Quodlibets, Not Necessarily By Irving Berlin
Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil (Irving Berlin, Music Box Revue 1922-23)
The two individual melodies in this number are fun, but the second has, I think, a weak moment:
Nothin’ on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin’ with his jazz band
Came from Alabam’ with a melody hot …
On its own, that part doesn’t hang together for me. It sounds like a mere counter-melody, and its purpose isn’t revealed until the two melodies are combined. When combined, since both tunes are pretty busy, they really tumble over one another, except for in this section I’ve cited, where they interlock nicely. The effect of the whole number is that of a patter song, with the point being to dazzle the audience by reprising the two melodies at lightning speed. As for surprise, I didn’t hear the quodlibet coming the first time I heard the song. Dramatic function? Not really applicable, since this song is from a revue. The two singers express the same sentiment: Hell is a pretty jazzy place.
All For the Best (Stephen Schwartz, Godspell)
Schwartz, only in his early 20s when he wrote this gem, had clearly been paying attention. The two melodies have great individual character, and the surprise of the quodlibet is heightened by presenting the first tune, on its first outing, colla voce – it’s in tempo only when reprised. That’s clever stuff, and it really got me the first time I heard it. When combined, the two vocal lines sit on different parts of the accompanying chords, and are rhythmically complementary as well. As if all this were not sufficiently impressive, the two singers express different attitudes (Jesus sings about heaven as the ultimate reward, while Judas rails against earthly inequality), during a number that itself functions as a major turning point in Godspell. In any story of the Christ, there’s got to be a point where the tone darkens. After this song, we reach that point.
You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)
I know, it’s heresy to criticise anything in the score for this show, but I’m going for it: I’ve never really cared for this quodlibet. There, I said it.
Dramatically, the song is everything you could ask for: the two young couples make predictions about their rosy futures together, futures that we in the audience know will be distinctly thorny. Sally, part of one young couple, is really in love with Ben, who’s part of the other couple, so there’s a good reason for the tunes to intertwine with one another in this love square.
Lyrically, both refrains are wordy, nifty pastiches expressing similar, cheery sentiments. Rhythmically, when they combine, it’s chaotic, but this is the start of a section in the show where everyone loses their minds, so that’s an apt choice.
Musically, the accompaniment is identical, and in the same key. This is not a quodlibet that’s trying to surprise you, and the first time I heard it, I thought “Ah, here we go. These’ll be in counterpoint later.”
So where’s the problem? I even like the two individual melodies well enough, individually. The problem, for me, is when they’re combined.
Here’s the melody for the refrain of ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow’:
Sondheim’s accompanying harmonies for these eight bars are Gbmaj9 for four bars, followed by two bars each of Ab13 and Db9, with the occasional passing chord. If this means nothing to you, remember only this: the above melody sits mostly on the major seventh and sixth of the first chord, the root of the second, and the root and ninth of the third.
Here’s the melody for ‘Love Will See Us Through’:
Now, where does this second melody sit, predominately, on those same chords? The major seventh and sixth of the first chord! Then the ninth of the second, followed by a phrase ending on the ninth of the third. This is the effect, to my ear, of combining these two melodies:
SAME SAME SAME SAME NEEDLESS CLASH BRIEF INTEREST SAME.
“But Peter,” your inner dramaturg might object, “this is the genius of that song! The tunes are too similar, just as the couples’ woes are too similar! The tunes needlessly clash just as these couples needlessly clash!”
Nah. Sondheim is too well-schooled a musician not to have intended the effect, but I don’t think it works, melodically. Melodically, this quodlibet deprives its audience of one of the chief pleasures of a quodlibet: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s two tunes piled one on top of the other. I can appreciate the mechanics of the effort, but I feel no thrill.
Who’s That Woman? (Stephen Sondheim, Follies)
Whereas the equivalent moment in this number, from earlier in the very same musical, has always thrilled me. The two tunes (the second might be titled ‘Mirror, Mirror’) don’t work together as a quodlibet for their entire respective lengths, and upon their reprise the singers revert to ‘Whose That Woman’ wherever the combination would come a melodic cropper.
But before that happens, there’s a full refrain of ‘Who’s That Woman’, after which ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is introduced in a different tempo and key – a deft way of hiding its quodlibet potential. A long dance break follows, and in Michael Bennett’s original staging, the older female ensemble are mirrored by their ghostly younger selves. It builds, and builds, (honestly, if you’ve not seen the reconstructed video and audio I’ve linked to in the title above, watch it, it’s glorious) and builds, until the lead singer Stella is mirrored by her past self, and the two female groups have combined, and the two tunes finally emerge in counterpoint, in a musical equivalent of the staging. Best of all, this is a song about growing older, showing past and present merging, within a whole show about growing older, and about reconciling your present self with the in/decisions of your youth. Two good tunes – tick. Whole greater than parts – tick. Surprise – tick. Dramatic function – tick.
The Inch Worm (Frank Loesser, Hans Christian Anderson)
This song isn’t presented in typical musical-theatre-quodlibet style, since the second tune (“Inch worm, inch worm …”) appears over the first (“Two and two are four …”) without having been heard on its own earlier. My favourite thing about Loesser’s achievement – and I haven’t heard it in any other quodlibet – is that Hans’s tune stays firmly inside the tonic scale, while the children’s tune enjoys all the flattened notes made possible by the chord progression. This is exceptionally good musicianship, from a songwriter with better technique than most of us realise.
Playing Croquet / Swinging / How Do You Do? (Rick Besoyan, Little Mary Sunshine)
People tend to get pretty worked up about how Besoyan combines not two but three separate tunes in this quodlibet, which is itself an affectionate parody of other quodlibets. Personally, I find it laboured. It’s a looooong time to spend in the company of the same generic chord progression.
One (Reprise) (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, A Chorus Line)
This is the first quodlibet I’ve mentioned that is not by a single composer/lyricist; you can see why these things might be a challenge to write with another person.
One, ostensibly a real showtune from the musical everyone in A Chorus Line is auditioning for, has been half-heard earlier in the show; in its reprise, which functions as both A Chorus Line‘s finale and bows, One is presented again, followed by its counter-melody, and then by the quodlibet moment.
If you’re not a musician, you may not appreciate how distinctive the chord progression for One is. There’s no other I know quite like it:
That’s like the chords to a bebop tune. Little wonder that, while Hamlisch’s main tune is a cracker, his counter-melody is like a clever student’s exam answer, with too many chromatic runs, and a flabby loss of verve in bars 9-16. Even if you’re not a sight-reader, I reckon you can see it:
Meanwhile, Kleban, the lyricist, is having a field day:
She walks into a room and you know
She’s uncommonly rare, very unique,
Peripatetic, poetic and chic …
Very unique? How unique can something be? By the last bars of the section above, Kleban is essaying:
Loaded with charisma is ma
Jauntily sauntering, ambling shambler.
… which no-one ever hears, because the women of the cast are taking their bows. The following video is grainy – and, fair warning, it cuts out just before the end – but you can see what I mean:
I wonder, did Kleban know, as he sweated over each syllable, that they’d be drowned out nightly? One is a helluva number overall, but as a quodlibet, it’s all about the dancing. Oh, that Michael Bennett.