Caffeine and Counterpoint

According to Garrison Keillor, “Lutherans drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.” This was not always the case. In the first half of the 18th century, many Germans looked askance at java, considering it a pernicious import. Additionally, some European princes forbade or heavily taxed coffee, in part to protect locally produced beverages from competition. Nonetheless, Leipzig boasted many lively coffeehouses. It was, after all, a college town, and higher education requires caffeine.

In one of those coffeehouses, Zimmerman's, a group of mostly student musicians known as the Collegium Musicum met every Friday to give informal concerts. Bach directed the group, and around 1732 he wrote the perfect piece for it: the Coffee Cantata.

A cantata—a standard vocal form of the era—unfolded a theme through a dramatic story. Sometimes this theme was secular, and sometimes it was sacred. The Coffee Cantata apparently carried no sacred overtones. Albert Schweitzer, in his two-volume analysis of Bach, noted, “it aims only at refreshment.” Bach adapted the lyrics from a story his chief librettist, Picander, had published in 1727. Picander generally showed more creativity with secular than sacred subjects, and this tale displays a delightfully light touch.

The cantata begins, “Be quiet, stop chattering, and pay attention to what's taking place.” A surly German father, Herr Schlendrian, is quarreling with his daughter, Lieschen, about her coffee habit. Schlendrian exhorts her to give up the brew, threatening to withdraw privileges until she obeys. Lieschen pouts, “If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.”

Finally, Poppa thinks he has found her weakness; he swears she will not have a husband unless she abandons her beverage. Lieschen assents—but only after writing into her marriage contract that she may drink as much coffee as she likes. The piece ends, “A cat won't stop from catching mice, and maidens remain faithful to their coffee. The mother holds her coffee dear, the grandmother drank it also; who can thus rebuke the daughters!” Throughout, the music is as melodramatic as the words.

Not much of Bach's surviving correspondence or composition evinces such wit, but an obituary co-written by his son asserted, “His serious temperament drew him by preference to music that was serious, elaborate, and profound; but he could also when the occasion demanded, adjust himself, especially in playing to a lighter and more humorous way of thought.” Musicologist Edwin Hughes described the stiffly titled Well-tempered Clavier this way: “The moods are manifold, varying from rollicking good humor to the profoundest depths of religious fervor. Here one finds whimsical conceit, gentle sadness, nobility, gaiety, wistfulness, soul-searching introspection, crushing grief, astoundingly unique flights of fancy that defy cataloguing, all spread out with a kaleidoscopic prodigality of inspiration.”

Bach clearly enjoyed his craft as much as Lieschen enjoyed her coffee.

By Elesha Coffman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #95 in 2007]

Elesha Coffman is a doctoral student at Duke University and senior editor of Christian History & Biography.
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