Coffee Cantatas

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Image retrieved from on October 16th, 2014.

The 18th Century was the time for coffee's most famous musical monument: Bach's Secular Cantata Number 211: The “Coffee Cantata.” What a splendid piece of music this is! Even that dourest, least humorous of Bach commentators, Albert Schweitzer, had to admit that this 1732 work – officially titled Schweight stille, plaudert nicht (“Keep silence, don't talk”) – is “totally refreshing.”

Bach had good reason for writing it. During the 18th Century, the king expressly forbade the drinking of coffee for commoners (see Coffee and politics). Thus, specially-appointed Kaffeeriechers (coffee-smellers) would go about the streets sniffing out offenders. There reward was a part of the fine subsequently paid by the drinkers.

Just about everybody made fun of such rulings, and Bach's favourite librettist, Picander, wrote a popular satire on the subject. The King, he wrote, banned coffee, so women died as if the plague were raging. Picander expanded on that (apparently when Bach asked him) and in the poem of the cantata, he told of Father Schlendrian telling his daughter to break the coffee habit. “Father,” sings his daughter, “If I don't drink my little cup of coffee three times a day, I’ll dry up like a piece of roast goat-flesh.” In a roguish aria, she sings in praise of coffee (It's “lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine. There's no way to please me except with coffee.”) Then she tells her father that she will sacrifice everything – her fashions, her walks, her ribbons – before she'll sacrifice coffee.

As for choosing a husband, this girl makes certain that “no wooer need come to the house unless he will promise, and have it put into the marriage settlement, that I may have freedom to make coffee whenever I want.”

This is the music which Albert Schweitzer calls “more like Offenbach and French light opera than that of a church organist.”

But the Coffee Cantata wasn't the first “serious” music about coffee. Way back in 1703, a whole collection of cantatas about coffee was published in Paris (though none survive to this day).

Bach was just the first of the “three B's” to appreciate coffee. Ludwig van Beethoven never wrote about coffee, but he frequently stated to intimates how much he loved strong coffee. One biographer said that the composer – who paid little attention to food and whose favourite dish was simply mashed eggs – gave special care to his coffee, carefully measuring out 60 beans per cup.

pp. 43-55 of The Complete Book of Coffee by Harry Rolnick (1982)