On Saturday, August 22 at 8:00 pm at Augsburg College in Minneapolis the Bach Society of Minnesota will perform a concert as part of the Twin Cities Early Music Festival. On the program is Bach’s Quodlibet BWV 524.

What is a Quodlibet? The term is not often heard anymore. Latin for “What Pleases” or “What you Will,” it is a musical composition in free form combining several different melodies and texts often in a light-hearted, humorous manner. In an on-line discussion of quodlibet the following definition was offered: “a bunch of disparate stuff all schlocked together, and half the fun being the incongruency of the results.”

In 1544 Wolfgang Schmeltzl used the term ‘Quodlibet’ to designate a composition that imitated a scholarly exam in which questions could be asked about anything, in any order. In Germany, over time, students began to lampoon this academic practice, and eventually things got out of line. The authorities stepped in. In 1558 at the University of Heidelberg this form of parody was explicitly banned as ‘it was of little use,’ degenerating into ‘a lot of humor that was insulting, humiliating and degrading;’ at least in the eyes of the authorities.

The word was defined in a 1571 dictionary of foreign terms by Simon Roth as “a thoroughly jumbled hotchpotch’ and ‘various items completely mixed up and presented at random.’

The origins of the musical Quodlibet can be traced back to the 15th century when combining folk tunes was popular. In 1619 Praetorius defined the form, among other things as ‘una salata de Mistichanza’ [a mixture made of all sorts of herbs].

The Bach family would spontaneously create Quodlibets at their annual reunions. J.N. Forkel, in an 1802 biography of J.S. Bach states:

“The first thing they did, when they were assembled, was to sing a chorale. From this pious commencement they proceeded to drolleries which often made a very great contrast with it. For now they sang popular songs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly naughty, all together and extempore, but in such a manner that the several parts thus extemporized made a kind of harmony together, the words, however, in every part being different. They called this kind of extemporary harmony a ‘Quodlibet,’ and not only laughted heartily at it themselves, but excited an equally hearty and irresistible laughter in everybody that heard them.”

Bach’s Quodlibet, or Wedding Quodlibet, is a frothy composition that was probably composed as a gift for a wedding, most likely one within the Bach family.

In keeping with the spirit of fun and even bawdiness as well as the nature of ‘una salata de Mistichanza,’ BWV 524 is a mixture of references to individuals, inside jokes, double entendre and even a list of cosmic events. Think of it as a skit at the end of Summer camp in which the jokes and references mean a lot to the people who were there!

Thomas Braatz, a Bach Scholar, in an article about Bach’s Quodlibet wrote:

“Upon closer examination of the text of BWV 524, I was able to discover some unifying threads/themes/ideas that help to cement together what might otherwise simply be a ridiculous, random hodge-podge of musical and textual fragments. It seems clear to me that Bach was very much involved in structuring the text which was derived from numerous sources: folksong, and student song fragments, street cries (including a town crier delivering the news,) imitations of liturgy with a secular Latin text, parlor word games, references by name to some who might have been present or who were being taken to task, sexual allusions, punning, musical imitations of the chaconne and fugue, deliberate mixing up of lines/parts, and quite a bit of word painting.”

An example of the wordplay centers on the word “Backtrog.” Literally this translates as “dough-trough.” Yet in this piece it is metaphor for a boat, a bed and even a place to “create” more Bachs. One example of word painting appears at the end of the existing composition. The phrase Da hat geboren eine alte Frau eine junge Sau! (There an old woman has delivered a young pig!) has the bass and soprano in parallel octaves, also something unnatural, at least in the world of counterpoint!

There are many more jokes, puns and delights in Bach’s playful piece of frippery. Below is a link to a performance by Ensemble Clematis. Let us know what you think of this wedding gift. Is it indeed a “thoroughly jumbled hotchpotch” or something else?


Selected Bibliography