Latin for Whatever

In his Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music, Donald Tovey discusses the makeup of the final variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. After the composition’s crowning achievements in counterpoint, symmetry, dance, and technicality, Bach decides to write a “quodlibet” (Latin for “whatever”). “The thirtieth variation is a ‘Quodlibet’; that is, a contrapuntal hotch-potch of popular tunes. In Bach’s time, when the tunes were widely known, the result must have been very amusing.”

According to Tovey, the two tunes are “Kraut und Rüben haben mich ver tricben”, tr. “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away” and “Hätt’ mein’ Mutter Fleisch gukocht, So wär ich länger g’blieben” tr. “If my mother’d cooked some meat, I might have stopped longer.” At least, according to Tovey. Who knows if that’s an accurate translation.

In the outtakes to the 1955 recording of the Goldberg, Glenn Gould chats away about the cultural phenomenon of the quodlibet, how it was common household activity in Bach’s time. A family for evening entertainment might sit around a fire and compete to see who could compose the best quodlibet from the craziest tunes.

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Oops—It Was a Pop Song

In Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, T. David Gordon tries to establish the point that “what is at stake is the kind of religion presented in music that is easy, trivial, light, inconsequential, mundane, or everyday” in worship battles. “The very existence of the expression sacred music once conveyed the notion that some music was different from other music, intentionally different, different precisely because it was devoted to a sacred (not common) cause.”

As a great example for solemn text wedded to appropriately solemn music, Gordon, who admitted frankly in the preface to the book that he knew very little about music, uses “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”. He quotes a stanza from J. W. Alexander’s translation of the St. Bernard poem:

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain:

Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;

Look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

He concludes, “Such a hymn requires a somber musical setting; to set such a hymn to a trivial, light tune would be not only musically self-defeating and disharmonious, but also sacrilegious.”

As it turns out, the tune we all sing O Sacred Head Now Wounded to was composed by Hans Leo Hassler, Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret. It was a secular love song. Oops.