Quodlibet: A Holy Mash-up

There’s a word used to indicate the practice of singing two different songs at the same time. The musicological term is quodlibet. My teenage children call it a “mash-up.” Sometimes melodies or texts are superimposed over one another to demonstrate the musical skills of a composer. Other times it might be done simply for the fun of it.

There were times in history that the church actively suppressed quodlibets in the liturgy. They were deemed at best to be unintelligible and at worst to be idolatrous distractions that paid more homage to the creation than to God, the Creator. But might there be a place for musical mash-ups in our liturgies today? I think so.

We do well to avoid too-clever quodlibets that obscure meaning. But let’s explore how singing songs next to one another, or even on top of one another, can uncover meaning and make the intention of our praise and prayer more clear.

I Need Your Help, O LORD My God (Psalm 55)/I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say/Oh, Were I Like a Feathered Dove

Psalm 55 expresses the longing to sprout wings and flee from our present distress. “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (v. 6). Who hasn’t felt that sentiment at one time or another? The psalm then lays bare a brutally honest lament of hurt and betrayal. Having cast these burdens upon the Lord, the psalm concludes with trust in the God who hears.

The hymn version of this psalm, “I Need Your Help, O LORD My God” (LUYH 664), creates a solid framing for petitions and laments that we might voice today. Have the congregation sing the first stanza, which ends with a wish to find a “sheltered place where I could be at rest.” Then have a soloist or an ensemble, perhaps from a remote “out-of-sight” location, sing stanza 1 from the beloved hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (LUYH 665). See, for example, the three-part treble setting given here. Let the singing of this stanza lead into the prayers of the people. The prayer is thus begun in the name of Jesus, the one who bids us “come and rest” (Matt. 11:28-30). Conclude the prayer with all singing the second stanza of the psalm versification (“Long as I live and troubles rise, my God, on you I’ll call . . .”), which echoes the psalmist’s affirmation of trust in God.

The tune provided here is RESTING PLACE, but any number of tunes could be used. Set the psalm versification to the tune your congregation most associates with the hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” This will allow them to already “hear” the overtones of Christ’s voice while they sing the psalmist’s words of lament. An excellent though somewhat challenging alternate tune is THIRD MODE MELODY. If the congregation sings the psalm in unison, an ensemble might respond with the hymn stanza using Thomas Tallis’ beautiful harmonization (see LUYH 435).

A marvelous newer tune is OCTAVIA (2005), composed by David Ashley White. I can’t resist offering this mash-up of texts with this tune! The first stanza of “Oh, Were I Like a Feathered Dove,” was composed in 1719 by Isaac Watts. It traces the wistful desire of the psalmist to be transported to some utopia. This is coupled with a modern text by Richard Leach (1995). The stanza offers us some reality therapy and then points us to Jesus. This is not a belittling of the psalm or of the psalmist’s crisis, but rather an affirmation that the prayer of lament is itself peace-giving. We may not sprout wings on our back, but our songs, our prayers, are winged. Singing, praying, we take flight.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul/Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Textually and melodically (when set to the tune martyn) “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” has much in common with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” This may have been the inspiration for Dr. Pearl Williams-Jones’ idea of conflating Charles Wesley’s hymn with Bach’s well-known obbligato melody. Once this pairing is established, many permutations of the texts and melodies can be explored.

Textually, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” points to our longing for Christ. Wesley’s hymn is intimate—daringly so—lifting imagery from the Old Testament book Song of Songs. If your church has a choir and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is part of its canon, consider inserting a stanza of Wesley’s text into the choral octavo. Or have the entire congregation sing a stanza of “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” with the organ or a string ensemble playing Bach’s full musical accompaniment. The music of the chorale is not difficult, though the congregation might benefit from having it lowered to the key of F. The director would simply need to bring the congregation in at each phrase.

But this pairing can bridge more than texts. The quodlibet inspired by Williams-Jones and arranged by Nolan Williams, Jr. bridges cultures and traditions and styles. One generation may be grateful to hear licks of “Jesu, Joy” wafting through the sanctuary. Another taps their toes to a cantering melody couched in jazzy harmonies, perhaps unaware of any preexisting tune associations. The entire accompaniment could be played on the piano, or it could be expanded into a jazz combo of keyboard, bass, drums (using brushes) and a solo woodwind. The obbligato line can be traded back and forth between woodwind and keyboard. The keyboard should simply riff on the chords when the woodwind is playing the obbligato. An obbligato part for alto saxophone is provided here as a sample. To hear one interpretation of this “mash-up” by Richard Smallwood go to tinyurl.com/Smallwoodmashup.

All can improvise according to their ability. This setting works particularly well during the time of confession. The stanzas could build incrementally. Stanza 1 could be sung by a soloist, establishing the jazz “tone of voice.” A group of singers could sing stanza 2. (Harmony works great.) Invite all to sing stanza 3. After stanza 3 the keyboard player might vamp under a spoken prayer of confession (see sidebar). Stanza 4 announces the pardon we receive in Christ. Sing it robustly. Be forewarned: the musical setting takes time! Every syllable counts. So much of the music offered by African American traditions cannot be rushed. When led with confidence, this sort of sustained working through the text allows us to pray deeply.

Spoken from the font, between stanzas 3 and 4 over an instrumental vamp:
God, you are our God and we seek you.
We thirst for you in the dry and weary lands of our lives
where there is no water.
In our unrighteousness,
in our falseness,
in our sin,
cleanse us with your streams of living water.
We come, seeking only you,
the source of righteousness, truth, and grace.
—prayer by Melissa Haupt


Psalm 15/Lord, Who May Dwell within Your House/I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me/This Little Light of Mine

Psalm 15 is short and to the point (see sidebar). It begs to be sung in worship. But how? Combining the psalm with a well-chosen melody or partner song can help us to find a liturgical handle. This is an entrance psalm for those crossing the threshold into worship. But it can make us squirm with feelings of inadequacy or even hypocrisy. Consider, then, using the psalm as an indicator of our need to confess.

The versification provided by Christopher Webber could be sung as a call to confession. Coupled with the tune CRIMOND, it steers clear of any smugness or self-aggrandizement (see sidebar). For many the tune will have associations with settings of Psalm 23. Follow the singing with a prayer of confession and conclude with the singing of Christopher Idle’s final stanza of Psalm 23 (see sidebar). Or conclude with the full singing of Psalm 23 using the text that your congregation associates with the tune CRIMOND.

At another worship service this same psalm could be used as a summons to dedication. The words are then aspirational, speaking of how we desire to be and live. The juxtaposition of the psalm with the spiritual “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” makes this meaning clear. You might even have a soloist chant the verses using the pointed text and the tone provided here. (To hear an example of this, visit tinyurl.com/PFASGonnaLive.)

The text of the spiritual can be adapted to reflect the psalm verses. After reading or chanting stanzas 1-3, sing “I’m gonna speak so. . . .” After reading or chanting stanzas 4-5, sing “I’m gonna give so. . . .” Eventually return to the singing of the original text. Then without changing keys or missing a beat, switch to a partner spiritual: “This Little Light of Mine.” After singing this a couple of times, lead two groups into simultaneous singing of the two spirituals—a true quodlibet! A choir or other ensemble could first demonstrate this, but never drop a beat. Keep it moving. A composition is provided that demonstrates how this might work with two sections of a choir.

A different approach is offered by the skeletal “gospelized” keyboard accompaniment of Michael Gittens’s arrangement (see p. 28). This is meant to be a starting point, so expand upon it! The half notes in the bass can be subdivided into quarter notes or pulsing dotted rhythms. But the singing of this quodlibet need not be complex. If you stick to either of the provided chord progressions, the two melodies can simply be sung in unison by two halves of the congregation. Or sing it unaccompanied and see what improvised harmonies emerge.

Why this mash-up? Admittedly, this may simply be for the joy of it. But this points to the joy of obedience. Happy are those who delight in the way of God!

Psalms for All Seasons iPad App Now Available

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Martin Tel (martin.tel@ptsem.edu) is the C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he directs the seminary choirs, facilitates the music ministry for daily worship, and offers courses in the area of church music.