A Guide to Musical Theatre Quodlibets – The West Side Quodlibet

In the previous post on this topic, I looked at what I call The Berlin Quodlibet, which works like this:

Two Different Melodies Written to the Same Chord Progression

This post is about

The West Side Quodlibet

… which works like this:

One Melody’s Chord Progression Calls the Shots; All Other Melodies Fall Into Line

I’ll admit that One Day More, from Les Miserables, is probably the best-known example of this type of quodlibet, but West Side Story came first, and One Day More has a guilty secret, which I’ll get to.

Tonight Quintet (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story)

The melody for Tonight has already been heard in its entirety earlier in Act One, as a balcony love duet between Tony and Maria (I’m using the stage score, not the film’s, by the way):

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Bernstein begins the quintet version of Tonight with very different melodic shapes, accompanied by very different harmonies.

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and, later:

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As you can see, I’ve given up trying to reduce Bernstein’s harmonic accompaniment to a mere chord symbol. You can’t, really, because at this point the composer is doing some very jazzy things, naturals and sharps happily clashing, the bass line’s rhythm grouped in three against four. It doesn’t matter, though; all that matters is the harmonies are very different from those of the balcony duet. Keep your eyes on those punchy groups of notes I’ve highlighted in blue and red. They’ll be back.

Once the Riff/Jet and Bernardo/Shark motifs are established, Anita sings them in her own slinky way, before Tony pops up and reprises the melody heard earlier on the balcony with Maria. And he reprises it exactly – no quodlibet trickery yet – before Riff reminds him to turn up to the rumble, to the tune of the first melody in the quintet (the one above, with the blue notes).

Then the fun starts. It’s Maria’s turn to sing the balcony tune, but as she does, Tony and Riff keep singing the rumble motifs established earlier, but – and this the crucial ingredient of the West Side Quodlibet – their motifs are shifted up and down to fit the balcony tune’s chord progression:

westside6_0013

That’s it. That’s all there is to the West Side Quodlibet.

Actually, no, I’m lying, that’s really the easy part. What Bernstein does, and does very well, is manipulate the rising tension and increasingly contrapuntal texture throughout the rest of the quintet, all while sticking to the one chord progression. He even gets away with this:

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That’s Anita, singing an altered version of the blue-coloured motif Riff sang at the start of this quintet, right-side-up, and then again, with the ending upside down. It works because Bernstein understands an important element of jogging your memory with a previously-heard tune:

The Rhythm Matters More Than the Intervals

If you’re repeating material, you can change a minor third to a major third, or you can flatten this and sharpen that, and I probably won’t even notice. But if you mess with the rhythm too much, there’s a good chance I’ll no longer recognise the thing you’re counting on me to recognise. And without that feeling of recognition, a quodlibet isn’t doing its job.

Bernstein also has fun introducing completely new material, including my favourite bit, which happens at the same time as Anita’s part above:

westanitaplus_0014

One last point that might seem pedantic, but I think it’s important: by having Anita sing these motifs on her own near the beginning of the piece, Bernstein and Sondheim give her musical permission to join in on those motifs later. As you’ll see, in One Day More from Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schönberg isn’t quite so scrupulous.

One Day More (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer etc etc etc, Les Miserables)

Here’s a bass line built from a descending major scale, and one set of chords you could choose to put over the top:

lesmisbass_0014

When a bass line descends like this over just the first four notes, and is given a chord for every note, it’s often called a lament bass, and there are many famous examples. Since the minor key version of this is called a minor lament, from now on, even though it doesn’t strictly have a chord for every note, I’m going to call the above major key version a major lament.

Several of the songs in Les Miserables are … wait for it … major laments. The bass line and chord progression are first heard, almost completely, as the instrumental introduction to At the End of the Day, and the first time they accompany a song is in Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream:

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I Dreamed a Dream also has a B section, or bridge (“But the tigers come at night …”), which features a different chord progression and melody. Schönberg will use this B section in One Day More, and add some pretty answering phrases for Marius and Cosette, but he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

The major lament next turns up in Jean Valjean’s Who Am I? (strictly, Cart Crash, but seriously, who calls it that?):

lesmiswho_0015

You may notice, in this different key, that the chords aren’t strictly identical, but trust me, this is the same chord progression and bass line. Anyone who tells you there’s a fundamental difference in pop/rock between, say, B and B6, needs to get out more. Also, like I Dreamed a Dream, Who Am I? has an extra section, a tag at the end (“He gave me hope when hope was gone …”), which Schönberg will use right at the end of One Day More, but again, he won’t do any quodlibetting with it.

A brief reprise of the major lament occurs when Marius meets Cosette – his first words to her are to the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – and then a few minutes later, Javert sings Stars, which is an almost identical major lament. But Stars isn’t used in One Day More, so I’ll skip it for now.

Then, at last, it’s quodlibet time in One Day More. It should come as no surprise that all these tunes, written to the same chord progression, can be played (according to the rules of the Berlin Quodlibet) at the same time.

Jean Valjean begins with the tune he sang earlier in Who Am I? Marius and Cosette join in with the tune of I Dreamed a Dream – remember, Marius was given access to it earlier? – and from here on the chord progression becomes that of I Dreamed a Dream, with key changes, until the very last bars.

Next, Eponine sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream, while Marius and Cosette sing those pretty answering phrases I mentioned. Now, I have no idea how Eponine knows the bridge to I Dreamed a Dream, but it doesn’t matter, because now Enjolras bursts on to the stage and he sings the B section of I Dreamed a Dream as well! It’s thrilling and dramatic, and musically it makes no sense. Where did he pick it up? We’ll never know.

After a thumping good key change, Javert gets a crack at things, but he doesn’t sing Stars; instead he sings a leitmotif that is by now associated with him, the police and the law. It was first sung by the constables who arrested Valjean when he nicked the silver from the Bishop of Digne, and also by Monsieur Bamatabois, the prissy bastard who had his face scratched by Fantine. Javert’s first rendition of it:

onedayjav_0016

is altered to fit the major lament (otherwise this might all be an enormous Berlin Quodlibet, but at this point it becomes a West Side Quodlibet). Schönberg even shifts Javert to a different beat of the bar, but it still works a treat because, like Bernstein, Schönberg knows that rhythm matters more than intervals:

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And the Thenardiers join in, too, with a chunk of the chorus from their signature tune, Master of the House, which needs no altering.

Now it’s time for the bridge from I Dreamed a Dream again, and by now all of Paris knows it. But there are still no quodlibet moments within this section! The quodlibet moments have, so far, been reserved exclusively for the major lament. By now, even if all of this is new to you, you have probably guessed One Day More‘s guilty secret. It is this:

Thousands of Tunes Fit This Chord Progression

So, as we approach another key change, and Marius chooses his bros over a girl, the major lament kicks in again, and everyone repeats their bits, except for Eponine, who gets this, which is frankly piss-weak:

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This strikes me as an opportunity missed. Javert could sing Stars. Eponine could start singing On My Own, with a couple of tweaks, even though it’s from Act Two, and even though the song hadn’t been written yet when One Day More was composed (the tune was Fantine’s – it’s complicated).

I’ll go further: Javerts of the world! Eponines all! Next time you’re at this bar, rehearsal letter F in your scores, I want to hear this:

Marius: My place is here, I fight with yoooooooouuuuuuuu …

Jean Valjean: One-

Eponine: ON MY –

Javert: THEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRREEE!

Eponine: OOOOOOOWWWNNNNNN!

Yes, it’s in a high belty key, but you’ll enjoy that. And think what a fun surprise it will be for your musical director.