Johann Sebastian Bach and his coffee

Bach Cafe Cantata Bach in Leipzig Interesting Coffee facts

Johann Sebastian Bach loved coffee. He had such a reverence for the stuff he was quoted as saying:

“Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.”

His love for coffee spilled over into a cantata he wrote about coffee where at one point the main character sings

“If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.”

I’m not sure what was going on in the 18th century with goats but it’s apparent if you didn’t have a daily coffee, you’d find out exactly what a dried up goat felt like.

Coffee houses in the 1700’s

At this point, the popularity of coffee had become widespread throughout Europe which meant establishments in which to enjoy this new beverage had been created as well. London saw many of the first coffee houses. Here’s a description from A brief and merry history of Great Britain

“There is a prodigious number of Coffee-Houses in London, after the manner I have seen some in Constantinople. These Coffee-Houses are the constant rendezvous for Men of Business as well as the idle People. Besides Coffee, there are many other Liquors, which People cannot well relish at first. They smoak Tobacco, game and read Papers of Intelligence; here they treat of Matters of State, make Leagues with Foreign Princes, break them again, and transact Affairs of the last Consequence to the whole World. They represent these Coffee-Houses as the most agreeable things in London, and they are, in my Opinion, very proper Places to find People that a Man has Business with, or to pass away the Time a little more agreeably than he can do at home; but in other respects they are loathsome, full of smoak, like a Guard-Room, and as much crowded.”

In all honesty, minus the smoke, I would argue that’s still the case in most coffee shops these days. The work device of choice is now the personal computer, but conversations of business and pleasure continue to take place in these establishments. And as a writer, I must admit that the modern day coffee shop is still a place I can pass the time a little more agreeably.

German Coffee Houses of the 18th Century

In 1694 the first coffee house was opened in Leipzig. By 1725, there were eight coffee shops. Why is this important? Because if we’re going to talk about Bach, we gotta talk about Germany, or more importantly, we gotta talk about Leipzig, Germany and we gotta talk about coffee shops.

(This will all come together and make sense shortly.)

First, here’s Leipzig on a map. Bach Cafe Cantata Bach in Leipzig Interesting Coffee facts

Bach Coffee Cantata history of coffee Leipzig
Cafe Zimmermann

The expansion of trade brought new people and ideas to Leipzig. This is like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples of a worldly culture brought about innovations in church, state, art, music, and how people spent their leisure.

One of the newest forms of leisure was to while away the hours in a coffee house. The most popular in Leipzig was Gottfried Zimmermann’s cafe, or Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus. It just so happens, this establishment was the backdrop of many first performances of Bach’s secular cantatas and instrumental works.

A guide to the city of Leipzig in 1725 described coffee houses like this:

“famous on account of their elegance, view, and comfort, and the large assemblies that take place in them daily; and especially since all those who go there, whether to read periodicals or history books, or to play various witty and permissible chess, board, ladies’, and billiard games, find very pleasant entertainment.” from The Musician as Entrepreneur, 1700-1914: Managers, Charlatans, and Idealists edited by William Weber, Indiana University Press

Unfortunately, the building that housed Café Zimmermann was destroyed in an allied air raid on Leipzig in December 1943.

The Influential City of Leipzig

“Music and society were changing in tandem in the city of Leipzig during the first half of the 18th century. The city was emerging as the most important central European trading center and in the process became much more integrated into world trade networks. As the…population expanded rapidly…the… elite took on new cosmopolitan tastes (and) Leipzig became known as “the Paris of central Europe.

Okay, so we’ve got money, we’ve got a culture tapped into the exchange of goods which brings about an exchange of ideas. We’ve also got a university in this city which means we’ve got kids who are all gun ho about the new ideas of the Baroque age not to mention innovative new ideas flying all around them. And then music is affected and now there’s patronage of music which draws famous musicians to town. Which means that musical production and performance changes. Concerts are begun to be held in coffee houses, in the main town square, in merchants’ gardens outside the town walls, and at the Leipzig Opera. More available to the commoners, you see.

All these changes happening in Leipzig are similar to what happened in Florence during the Renaissance. The men that had the money and were supporting the artists lived in Florence so the artists flocked to Florence.

In 1720 this guy named Johann Friedrich Fasch, creates a group of performers who meet weekly to play among themselves and occasionally put on public concerts in public spaces, such as Cafe Zimmermann. The group was called the Collegium Musicum. By 1730, our boy Johann Sebastian comes alone and takes over direction of this group who performs at least once a week.

What was Bach Doing in Leipzig?

You didn’t even know you had that question, huh? Okay, from 1723  to 1750 Bach was “responsible for the musical training of the boys choir at Thomasschule and oversaw music at four main churches of Leipzig…There he wrote five cycles of cantatas for the Church year. What this means is that he wrote enough cantatas for every Sunday for five years…over 300… Unfortunately, about two-fifths are considered lost.”

On top of that, Bach is also composing for the Collegium Musicum.

Now, the year is 1732 and there is a movement to try and keep women from drinking coffee. The reasoning behind this is ridiculous thinking coffee made women sterile. Oh yeah, and another part of the movement was to discourage commoners from drinking coffee. If this sounds like a ploy to keep the coffee shops “highbrow”, I don’t think you’re too off base.

So Bach writes a humorous one-act cantata (operetta) that is part protest song and part ode to his favorite beverage: The Coffee Cantata, “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (“Be silent, don’t chatter”) (BWV 211). The cantata was performed by the Collegium Musicum at Zimmermann’s coffee house.

(See how this all came together and now you know more about Bach, Leipzig and Zimmermann’s than you ever wanted to know!)

The Cantata is about Aria, a young woman who loves her coffee. Her father, Schlendrian, whose name means “stick in the mud,” is trying to get his headstrong daughter to kick the habit and get married. His reasoning: What man would want a woman who drinks coffee?

(Wait, so Aria must choose between marriage and coffee? Um…)

Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

Eventually, the father agrees to write into a marriage contract that his daughter be guaranteed three cups of coffee a day. And all is well.

So there you have some musical coffee trivia for your day! Though, I’m sorry to say, I still am not certain what was going on with goats and their species defamation, nor do I know why in cooking them they seemed to lack of tenderness. That’s a different subject to research on a different day.

Bach Cafe Cantata Bach in Leipzig Interesting Coffee facts

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