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Family Drama in Bach's "Coffee" Cantata

cup of coffee with decorative frothed milk sitting on a rustic wooden table
Jonas Jacobsson

On The Bach Hour, one of the composer's frothier musical creations tells the story of a father, his daughter, and a hot caffeinated beverage that causes a minor rift in family relations.

On the program:

Chorale Partita BWV 767 O Gott, du frommer Gott - Matthias Eisenberg, organ (Jehmlich organ, with porcelain pipes, at the Meissen Porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany)

Cantata BWV 211 Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Coffee Cantata) (translation) - Anne Grimm, soprano (Liesgen); Paul Agnew, tenor; Klaus Mertens (Herr Schlendrian); Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman, conductor

Concerto in C for two keyboards, BWV 1061 - Anderson & Roe Piano Duo

selection from Pastorale in F, BWV 590 - Matthias Eisenberg, organ



Brian McCreath Throughout his life, J.S. Bach used music as a vehicle to confront life’s most profound questions, leading to a body of sacred vocal works like none the world had seen before or since. But Bach was also in touch with what’s important on the more mundane level of daily life. Like, for instance … coffee.

Bach’s "Coffee" Cantata isn’t really about the drink itself. It’s actually about what people are willing to do to keep filling their cups.

A father and daughter play power games, all over a hot drink with a bit of a kick, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. If you’re a parent, you know how the smallest differences of opinion can spin up into major confrontations with your children. Add in the mildly addictive jolt of caffeine, and you have a recipe for high drama. Or at least drama. Or maybe just comedy. Even though he wrote monumentally powerful pieces like the St. Matthew Passion, and intellectually mind-boggling collections like The Art of the Fugue, Bach clearly knew the comically absurd side of being a dad. You’ll hear that perspective reflected in the "Coffee" Cantata on today’s program. And you can find a translation of the "Coffee" Cantata online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

The "Coffee" Cantata revolves around the rebellious personality of a teenager. Here’s a piece Bach wrote when he was a teenager. And it’s played on an instrument that has something very important in common with having a cup of coffee. More on that after this performance of the Partita on the Chorale “Oh God, Thou Just God,” with organist Matthias Eisenberg, here on The Bach Hour.


Brian McCreath This performance of Bach’s Partita on the Chorale “Oh God, Thou Just God,” was played by Matthias Eisenberg on a very special instrument, one that reflects one corner of the societal and technological transformations that propelled the German states forward after the devastation of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.

In 1708, an chemist named Johann Böttger cracked the incredibly complex code for how to make pure white porcelain - something the Chinese, by the way, had pulled off several centuries before.

Anyway, within a couple of years, a factory in the town of Meissen, just outside Dresden, was creating exquisitely artistic porcelain decorations, figures, and tableware - including cups for coffee.

The factory is still there, and Meissen has become a legendary brand. And in 2000, one of the master craftsmen of Meissen created perfectly tuned organ pipes made of porcelain. The instrument that makes use of those pipes - the organ you just heard - was built by the Jehmlich Organ Company of Dresden and now resides in the Meissen Museum.

It was in the decades immediately preceding the development of German porcelain that coffee first started showing up in Europe. And by the time Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, the coffeehouse run by Gottfried Zimmermann was one of the most popular gathering places in the city.

And in 1734, Bach used words written by the librettist Picander to reflect his culture’s love for coffee through a cantata. But the "Coffee" Cantata isn’t so much about coffee itself as much as it is about something Bach - who was the father of 20 children - knew all too well: the sometimes absurd power struggles that crop up between parents and their children.

The piece begins with a tenor soloist who sings, “Be quiet, do not chat, and listen to what happens now.” What happens is that a father, Schlendrian - a name that you might translate as “Stick in the Mud” - complains about how aggravating children are.

Then Liesgen, Schlendrian’s daughter, sings about needing three cups of coffee a day, or she’ll turn into a shriveled up roast goat, and that coffee is “more delicious than a thousand kisses.”

Schlendrian is having none of this, so he threatens to take away everything Liesgen loves if she won’t give up coffee. No more walks, no more parties, no more of the latest fashions, even looking out the window won’t be allowed. And that’s all fine with Liesgen. As long as she can have her coffee. Finally, Schlendrian says that she won’t get married if she keeps drinking coffee. And that does the trick.

Liesgen says she’ll stop drinking coffee, and Schlendrian goes off to find a husband for her. But as he heads off, it becomes clear to us that the only people Liesgen will consider as marriage material are men who allow her … to drink coffee.

You can follow along with this parental power struggle by going to our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the "Coffee" Cantata, featuring soprano Anne Grimm as Liesgen and bass Klaus Mertens as her father, Schlendrian. Paul Agnew is the tenor soloist, and Ton Koopman leads the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, here on The Bach Hour.


Brian McCreath The final trio of Bach’s "Coffee" Cantata, written by the librettist Picander, translates in part as “The mother adores her coffee habit, and grandma also drank it, so who can blame the daughters.” Comedies always push the stereotypes, don’t they? Still, a pretty fun piece about the tension between father and daughter and what’s at the heart of that tension: coffee.

This performance of the "Coffee" Cantata featured soprano Anne Grimm as Liesgen and bass Klaus Mertens as her father Schlendrian, along with tenor Paul Agnew. Ton Koopman led the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

After hearing a cantata meant to be performed at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, let’s turn to an instrumental piece that would also have been heard there. With the piano duo Anderson and Roe, this is Bach’s Concerto in C major, here on The Bach Hour.


Brian McCreath This Concerto in C major, performed here by the duo Anderson and Roe, is the very essence of musical dialogue, the two pianists trading lines back and forth as if they’re actually in a conversation. Perfect, then, for the social scene in which it was originally meant to be heard: a coffee house in Germany.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program again on-demand, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.