The Reading Room

Bach’s Ode to Caffeine

Our modern picture of Johann Sebastian Bach is lopsided. He wrote both secular and religious vocal music, but much more of the latter survived. It’s unquestionable that his Christian beliefs inspired him to write some of the greatest music ever composed. Hearing only the Passions, the Masses, and the church cantatas, though, makes us think of him as a totally serious man who never smiled. 
That’s a mistaken impression, as the few secular cantatas we have from him show. The best known, BWV 211, is formally known by its opening line, “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,” but more frequently called the “Coffee Cantata.” It’s a miniature comic opera for three voices and a chamber ensemble, with text by Bach’s frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici. He wrote it to be sung in concert, but staging and costumes are common today. The music is more Italian in style than his sacred works, without elaborate counterpoint.
Not much is known about the cantata’s composition, but it most likely was premiered at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig around 1735. Bach led performances of many of his secular works there.
The three singers represent a father, Schlendrian, his daughter, Lieschen, and a narrator. A “Schlendrian,” in German slang, is a lazy, unmotivated worker. 
With no prelude, the narrator tells the audience, “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (be quiet, stop talking). Coffeehouse audiences talking during the performance must have been a chronic problem for Bach. The narrator introduces Schlendrian and Lieschen, and the story begins. In some staged productions, the narrator also serves as Lieschen’s suitor.
Schlendrian is upset that his daughter is addicted to coffee. She sings her praise of the beverage in an aria with an elaborate flute obbligato, but he threatens to withdraw every privilege he can think of if she won’t give it up. She won’t even be allowed to look out the window, but she doesn’t care.
Finally he comes up with a killer argument: He won’t allow her any suitors as long as she insists on her coffee. Faced with this ultimatum, she yields instantly. But while her father is out looking for a man to marry her, she spreads the word that no suitor will get her hand unless he puts it in writing that she can make coffee whenever she wants. Outmaneuvered, Schlendrian concedes the battle.
How does this story fit with Germany in the 18th century? Coffee actually was very popular, and the coffeehouses were centers of intellectual activity. The drink was obviously more conducive to clear thinking than beer or wine was. However, they were centers of male activity. Schlendrian’s issue is that it’s his daughter who’s consuming it.
Viewed in this light, Lieschen is a representative of eighteenth-century feminism. Her father’s blustering leaves her unmoved; she’ll have her coffee, no matter what she has to give up for it. The closing trio tells us that her mother and grandmother are coffee drinkers, and young women can no more give up coffee than cats can give up mice. Schlendrian has been fighting a hopeless battle.
He might have had a chance a century earlier. Coffee was controversial in Europe in the seventeenth century. In 1675, King Charles II of England issued a proclamation outlawing coffeehouses and the sale of coffee. His real concern wasn’t that the drink was harmful but that coffeehouses were centers of political discussion and unrest. The ban lasted less than two weeks before his coffee-loving ministers forced its repeal.
The first German coffeehouses opened before Bach was born, and by the time he wrote the cantata, opposition to the drink was mostly a thing of the past. Even women could drink it without encountering complaints, as long as they did it at home.
But imagine yourself in Zimmerman’s in 1735. A woman in a coffeehouse is singing a song praising a potent substance and insisting on her freedom to consume it. Maybe the times have a-changed less than we think.