10 Facts About Bach's Coffee Opera You Need To Know

Yup, that's right, J.S. Bach wrote a chamber opera about coffee. And not just coffee, coffee addiction! Here's some facts about Bach's "Coffee Cantata" and how the piece came about.

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On Jun 20, 2019

J.S. Bach directed a coffee house band. No, seriously.

George Philip Telemann formed a group of musicians to play at Café Zimmermann in 1702 and Bach took over in 1729. The Leipzig opera house closed in 1693 after recession that resulted from the Thirty Years War. Zimmerman's allowed people to enjoy instrumental music, cantatas, and chamber operas with their coffee. The did indoor concerts once a week, and outdoor events in the coffee garden when weather permitted.


Famous opera composers and singers always stopped by Zimmermann's to jam.

The musicians in Bach's Collegium were a mix of students, amateurs, and professionals. But, all of the best composers and musicians passing through Leipzig had to stop by Zimmermann's to jam out. Faustina Bordoni, one of the most acclaimed singers of her day, and her husband Johann Adolph Hasse, one of the most acclaimed composers, visited Bach in Leipzig a few times. They were so popular, you could even buy porcelain figures of them! They likely popped by Zimmermann's for some Kaffee mit Musik.


Bach and his musicians played music from all over the continent at Zimmermann's.

We know that the musicians at Zimmermann's had access to music from all over Europe based upon archival evidence. C.P.E. Bach wrote that, “In his last years he esteemed highly; Fux, Caldara, Handel, Keiser, Hasse, both Grauns, Telemann, Zelenka, Benda, and in general everything that was particularly esteemed in Berlin and Dresden." Since these composers specialized in cantatas and operas, and those genres were so popular in Berlin and Dresden, it's no surprise Bach tried his hand at composing music dramas.


Bach's "Coffee Cantata" was likely performed as a staged or semi-staged drama.

The term "cantata" applies to a variety of works, though is somewhat of a misnomer to describe Bach's "Coffee Cantata." Most people today use the term "cantata" to describe pieces of music for one or more voices and instruments that are performed without staging in a sort of "park and bark" style of delivery. But, early manuscript sources of the performing parts to Bach's piece describe the work as a "music drama," the same term used to describe most "operas" and other dramatic works. So, we might call this piece a "cantata," but Bach and his contemporaries understood it as music drama suited to chamber performance. A rose by a rose would still smell as sweet, right?


The two main characters are a coffee-addicted girl and her cranky father - similar to a comic "intermezzo."

Dramaturgically speaking, Bach's "Coffee Cantata," or opera, or whatever you wanna call it, is similar to a "comic intermezzo." During the early 18th century, the intermezzo was a popular genre of comic chamber opera that usually only required two singers and a few instrumentalists. The characters in intermezzi were often an attractive, witty woman and an older, less-intelligent man, based upon archetypes from commedia dell'arte. Bach's librettist Picander adapted the commedia archetypes to fit stock characters that were popular in Germany at the time. "Schlendrian," the father, is based upon the stodgy "Sophroniscus" character found contemporary satire. The daughter character is similar to women satirized in Picander's play "The Women’s Test, or the Infidelity of Wives."


One of the characters in the cantata was likely a pantomime.

One curious part of the "Coffee Cantata" is that the narrator, a tenor, only sings recitative at the very beginning and very end of the work. So, what is he doing the rest of the time? Comic intermezzi often had mute characters which helped propel the action of the convoluted plots. Usually they helped facilitate slapstick humor and other jokes. If the "Coffee Cantata" was performed in a staged or semi-staged manner, it would be surprising if the tenor character did not participate in the action in some way. After all, we know from first hand accounts that Leipzigers were used to both travelling intermezzo troups who wowed audiences with their "wild gesticulation, acrobatic pratfalls, exhibitionism, and non-verbal communication of the most elemental sort."


Drinking coffee was gendered in the 18th century.

Coffee and coffee houses were typically the domain of men during the 18th century. Though women were increasingly independent and a part of public life, women who consumed coffee typically did so in private, domestic spaces. While Café Zimmermann wouldn't have restricted women from drinking coffee there, part of the parody of Bach's "Coffee Cantata" is not just of coffee addicts in general, but particularly of head-strong women who were determined to get their caffeine fix.


A woman may have produced the first performances of the "Coffee Cantata."

Christiane Mariane von Ziegler may have hosted the first performances of the "Coffee Cantata," according to musicologist Katherine R. Goodman. Von Ziegler wrote the texts to several Bach cantatas, and Goodman has also suggested that she might have written the text to the final chorus of Picander's libretto to the "Coffee Cantata." Picander's libretto was published in his "Serious-jovial and Satiric Poems" (1732). So, Goodman has proposed that von Ziegler penned the two stanzas that Bach set in the final chorus: "As cats will always chase their mice, so ladies drink their grounds and water. If mothers love their coffee brew, and grandmamas adore it too, then who can blame the daughters?" Though there's no record of the first performances of the "Coffee Cantata," we can safely assume that even if it were performed in von Ziegler's home, it was likely performed at Zimmerman's, too, since it's a natural way to market the business of the man who not only hosts your band, but who also bought your band instruments, as records show.


Like coffee which came from the orient, the "Coffee Cantata" contains a few oriental themes.

All things oriental were popular in the increasingly global economy of 18th century Europe. Coffee came to German-speaking lands through the Middle East, along with other goods and trends, including music. Everyone's familiar with Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca." But, Turkish music crept into European music for literally centuries before Mozart was even born. In Saxony, where Bach lived much of his life, there was a *lot* of contact with the Ottoman Empire, and there are records of the Saxon court incorporating Janissary music into their festivities as early as the Renaissance. It's no surprise that Bach wanted to add some oriental flavor into the score to the "Coffee Cantata." The mock-pathetic aria, "Ah! How sweet the coffee's taste is" ("Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße") is scored for flute and continuo. The flute was often associated with pastoral and oriental music, and the natural choice for a continuo instrument would be a lute, an instrument that came from the orient. Listeners at the time would've been immediately transported to the bazaars of Istanbul during this sweet sounding aria.


There's *another* "Coffee Cantata" set to the same libretto.

There are four compositions other than Bach’s which use Picander’s libretto. One has survived in full score to the present day by an anonymous composer. The mansucript is in the hand of Penzel, the copyist who also prepared one of the three sets of score and parts for Bach's "Coffee Cantata" and can be dated circa 1735. Though the original autograph score may predate Penzel’s copy. The style of this piece is very different from Bach's, whose music for this comic work is rooted much more firmly in opera seria than comic intermezzi, despite dramaturgical similarities to the genre. Bach wrote other "music dramas" besides just the "Coffee Cantata," including "Aeolus's Bag of Wind," "The Contest Between Apollo and Pan," and others. Most of them are called "secular cantatas" today, though the manuscripts in the hand of J.S. Bach or copies made by those close to him refer to these pieces as "music dramas" - the same term used for operas - rather clearly.

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