Friday, July 19, 2013

JS. BACH "The Coffee Cantata"


"Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love."
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838)
speaking of the perfect cup of coffee.

"Without my morning coffee I'm just like a dried up piece of roast goat."
"Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, 
sweeter than muscatel wine!
I must have my coffee..."
(1732, an aria from Lieschen in Bach's "Kaffee-Kantate")

How Bach managed to write such beautiful (and intense) music with shaky, caffeine-addled hands is a mystery, but it's a good thing he did: Nicknamed "The Coffee Cantata," is a comedic love note to the one of the German composer's favorite beverages, penned (one assumes during sleepless nights) between 1732 and 1734.

Bach owned a few coffee makers and was a big coffee lover himself. The consumption of this beverage was apparently illegal during Bach's time, since the profits for its sales went to foreign hands, as opposed to the profits for beer sales, which would stay in Germany, so the King was rightfully upset about people drinking coffee.

"Die Katze läßt das Mausen nicht"
by Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

"The Coffee Cantata", is actually more a mini comic opera, but is classified as a secular cantata. It tells the story of Schlendrian, whose daughter Lieschen is addicted to coffee. He eventually forbids her to marry unless she gives up coffee, but as he is out searching for a husband for her, she tells her suitors that she will only marry them if they allow her to drink coffee!

In an effort to rid his daughter of the evil drink, he progressively forbids her her luxuries. Lieschen refuses to give it up, saying that coffee is more delicious than a thousand kisses, and sweeter than muscatel wine. It is only when Schlendrian refuses to allow her to marry that she relents. But even then, as the father goes off to find a husband, Lieschen reveals that she will make it a part of the marriage contract that she be allowed her three cups a day.


The early 18th century enthusiasm in Western Europe for coffee amongst the middle classes was affecting Prussia's economy. The country's monarch, Frederick the Great, wanted to block imports of green coffee as Prussia's wealth was being drained by the huge sums of money going to foreign exporters. Also the right to sell coffee was intended to be restricted to four distillers but the fashion for drinking coffee has become so widespread that the law was being flouted and coffee beans illegally roasted.

The libretto suggests that some people in eighteenth-century Germany viewed coffee drinking as a bad habit. The Prussian king condemned the increase in coffee consumption as "disgusting" and urged his subjects to drink beer instead. Frederick employed coffee smellers, who stalked the streets sniffing for the outlawed aroma of home roasting. However such was the public outcry that eventually he was forced to change his mind. As a satire on the whole affair, Bach wrote the "Coffee Cantata," a humorous one act operetta about a stern father's attempt to check his daughter's indulgence in the much loved Saxon habit of coffee drinking.

During his time in Leipzig, Bach was responsible not only for music for the church, but for a good deal of music for the community. His collegium musicum in Leipzig was the principle beneficiary of Bach’s secular musical composition.

Although nowadays we associate really good coffee with France and Italy, coffee did not arrive in Europe until about the same time that Bach was born. It did not take long, however, for coffee to become the fashionable drink in European cities, and by the time Bach wrote the Coffee Cantata (around 1732-1735), coffee houses were commonplace.

The text was written by Picander (pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici, who contributed a number of texts for Bach, including the poetic texts in the St. Matthew Passion).


The work is scored lightly, for three solo voices (soprano, tenor, and bass), strings, flute, and continuo. Only in the final number, which bears the designation "coro" (usually indicating chorus), do all voices and instrumentalists participate.


Recitativo: Schweigt stille
The narrator tells the audience to quiet down and pay attention, before introducing Schlendrian and Lieschen.
Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern
Schlendrian sings in disgust of how his daughter refuses to listen to him, even after telling her 1,000 times.
Du böses Kind
Schlendrian and Lieschen
Schlendrian asks his daughter again to stop drinking coffee, Lieschen defiantly tells her father to calm down.
Ei! Wie schmeckt der Kaffee süße
Lieschen sings a love song to her coffee.
Recitativo: Wenn du mir nicht den Kaffee läßt
Schlendrian and Lieschen
Schlendrian starts giving ultimatums to his daughter, threatening to take away her meals, clothes, and other pleasures. Lieschen doesn't seem to care.
Mädchen, die von harten Sinnen
In this sung monologue, Schlendrian tries to figure out what his daughter's weak spot is, so she absolutely couldn't want to drink coffee again.
Nun folge, was dein Vater spricht!
Schlendrian and Lieschen
Schlendrian threatens to prevent his daughter from marrying if she fails to give up coffee, Lieschen has a sudden change of heart.
Aria: Heute noch, lieber Vater
Lieschen thanks her father for offering to find her a husband, and vows to give up coffee if she can have a lover instead.
Nun geht und sucht der alte Schlendrian
The narrator states that while Schlendrian goes out to find a husband for his daughter, Lieschen secretly tells potential suitors that they must let her drink her coffee if they care to marry her.
Die Katze läßt das Mausen nicht
All three characters sing the moral of the story, "drinking coffee is natural".


More than his other works, Bach’s Coffee Cantata presents a little drama/miniature opera. It begins with a recitative, rather than a concerted, melodic work, for solo tenor and continuo.

1st Movement - Recitativo: “Schweigt stille”

The tenor, our narrator, appears only in this first and the final numbers.
He begins with the text:

"Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
"Be quiet, stop chattering
und höret, was jetzund geschieht!"
And listen to what will happen now!"

*to see all text in German and the English translation, please click HERE

This serves the role of an overture, fanfare, or theater bell; the narrator appears to be speaking to the invisible patrons in the coffeehouse, but his announcement helps quiet the audience and focus their attention on the drama about to unfold.

The narrator then announces the arrival of Herr Schlendrian (solo bass) and his daughter, Lieschen (solo soprano). But the continuo serves as another character here, with its dotted rhythms (marked "con pompa" —with pomp) mocking Herr Schlendrian as he approaches the coffee house.

2nd Movement & 3rd Movement
The drama unfolds between Schlendrian and his daughter. She will not obey him, he reveals in no. 2; in the following recitative (no. 3), we discover that the culprit, the vice causing her disobedience, is coffee, which Lieschen refuses to do without.

4th Movement  - Aria: “Ei! Wie schmeckt der Kaffee süße”
The fourth number is an aria for soprano, which fuses together two other genres with the solo aria: the trio sonata and the minuet. It is a trio sonata in that Bach includes two independent and equal melodic lines with continuo. The obbligato flute is completely independent of the soprano, sometimes standing entirely on its own (as at the beginning, the ending, and in transitions between verses); it never takes the deferential role of resorting to playing in parallel thirds or sixths with the voice.

At the same time, this number is a minuet that is, it is a medium tempo, triple meter movement which symbolizes elegance and nobility (the minuet may have started in the lower classes, but it eventually became strongly associated with the aristocracy). What is unusual, however, is that the phrases here are grouped in threes, where we are conditioned (by the Viennese Classicists, primarily) to expect four-measure phrases.

5th Movement -  Recitativo: “Wenn du mir nicht den Kaffee läßt”
The next number is another simple recitative. Schlendrian threatens his daughter: he will not give her a wedding breakfast, a fancy dress, a walk, a silver or gold decoration for her bonnet…if she will not give up coffee. She chooses coffee over all these things.

6th, 7th, 8th, 9th Movements
In the next aria (no. 6), Schlendrian sings again of his daughter’s obstinancy (and that of all women). In the subsequent recitative, he finally gets the brilliant idea to tell his daughter that she will not be able to marry unless she gives up coffee–something she suddenly is quite willing to do. In the da capo aria which follows (no. 8), Lieschen sings blissfully, anticipating the greater joy a husband will bring, instead of that of her coffee. The narrator returns in the recitative, no. 9, announce how the drama concludesL Schlendrian decides to rush off to find a husband for his daughter; Lieschen, meanwhile, has secretly announced that she will put in the marriage contract a stipulation that she be permitted to brew coffee whenever she wants! The text for no. 9 does not exist in Picander’s text; apparently, Bach added this little plot twist himself.

10th Movement - Trio: “Die Katze läßt das Mausen nicht”
The concluding number (10), marked "coro", involves the full complement of voices and instrumentalists. It is a bourreé, but has the feel of a chorale fantasy, of the kind Bach might write to open a chorale cantata. The instruments set the tempo, key, and mood, keeping the texture rhythmically lively. The singers enter, almost always simultaneously and in a homophonic texture; the strings and flute double the voices, while the continuo keeps the motion alive.

Bach writes two da capos in this movement: one after the first verse returns the music to the opening; after the repeat, the music continues to stanza two, at the end of which is another da capo marking. Thus, the opening instrumental passage is heard three times.

Mere words cannot express the general delight of this work of Bach; one must hear it, following the libretto, to appreciate all its charms, and then lament that Bach never produced a full comic aria for the ages. This is as close as he gets.