A Saturday morning all-Bach concert in the neighbouring village of Abu Ghosh was an occasion not to be missed, especially as it coincided with a special birthday. And what an occasion it was! It marked the conclusion of the Barrocade ensemble’s concert season, featured Finnish violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, and the programme included Bach’s Cantata no. 140, Brandenburg concerto no. 5 and his concerto for oboe d’amore. A rich programme indeed, and one that ended on a particularly attractive note – a performance of Bach’s Coffee Cantata
The history of the spread of coffee in Europe in the seventeenth century is the subject of legend. According to some reports an Ethiopian farmer noted the lively behavior of his goats after they had chewed the berries of a certain bush. From there the coffee drink spread throughout the Arab world, was traded by the Ottomans with Venice, and entered Europe via that route.
According to another account, when the invading Ottoman army was routed by the troops of the Holy Roman Empire at the siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks left large quantities of tents, pack animals, grain and gold as well as sacks filled with green coffee beans. When the booty was distributed it transpired that no one wanted the beans, which were unknown in Vienna at the time. A Polish resident of Vienna by the name of Kolschitsky who had lived in Istanbul and served as an interpreter, offered to take the sacks. He knew how to prepare coffee, and later established the first coffee house in Vienna, from where the institution spread to the rest of Europe.
Coffee houses became meeting places and the scene of social gatherings, the forerunner of the men’s club; women were banned from them in England and France, while in Germany they were permitted to enter. In Bach’s time in Leipzig (1723 until his death in 1750) the Zimmerman Café was well known as a meeting place for musicians, it housed the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble that was established there in 1702 by Telemann, and it was there that Bach’s Coffee Cantata was first performed.
We all know Bach as a serious, prolific and God-fearing composer, and the cantatas he composed for performance in the framework of the weekly church service are a mainstay of the musical repertoire, not to mention his many other orchestral, chamber and choral compositions.
We also know that Bach had a large family, and it would seem that – perhaps inevitably – he also had a sense of humour. At any rate, the Coffee Cantata begins with the narrator telling the audience (in German) to ‘Shut up, and stop chattering,’ which probably reflects what was happening in the coffee house at the time.
The two main characters in what is essentially a mini-opera, the father, Schlendrian (literally, ‘Stick in the Mud’) and Lieschen, his daughter, are in disagreement because the father objects to his daughter’s habit of drinking coffee. The two engage in an entertaining musical duel – the father trying every ruse he can think of to stop his daughter drinking coffee and the daughter happily accepting every restriction he seeks to impose in order to be able to continue indulging in the habit. In the performance we attended the singers donned period costume and acted their roles, using props such as coffee cups of various shapes and sizes. However, when the father threatens to prevent his daughter from marrying she finally agrees to stop drinking coffee and urges him to find her a husband, though secretly resolving that whoever he may be he will have to allow her to drink coffee.
At this point, much to the audience’s amusement, the father started to point to one or another member of the audience, indicating that they might be a suitable match. But Lieschen has a plan of her own and it turns out that her choice has fallen on the personable young tenor-narrator. The cantata ends with all three singing joyfully about the delights of coffee, a beverage that is enjoyed even by mothers and grandmothers. The message seems to be ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ and that is possibly a lesson that Bach himself had to learn in his long and productive life.
(In honour of Yigal’s 75th birthday)