J.S. Bach’s Comic Opera, “The Coffee Cantata,” Sings the Praises of the Great Stimulating Drink (1735)

From the time that a nameless genius in either Ethiopia or Yemen decided to dry, crush and strain water through a berry known for making goats nervous and jumpy, coffee has been loved and worshiped like few other beverages. Early Arab doctors proclaimed the stuff to be a miracle drug. Thoroughly caffeinated thinkers from Voltaire to Jonathan Swift to Jack Kerouac debated literature, philosophy and everything in between at coffee houses. Author Honoré Balzac even reportedly died because of excessive coffee drinking (it was either that or the syphilis.)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was also apparently a coffee enthusiast. So much so that he wrote a composition about the beverage. Although known mostly for his liturgical music, his Coffee Cantata (AKA Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211) is a rare example of a secular work by the composer. The short comic opera was written (circa 1735) for a musical ensemble called The Collegium Musicum based in a storied Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, Germany. The whole cantata seems very much to have been written with the local audience in mind.

Coffee Cantata is about a young vivacious woman named Aria who loves coffee. Her killjoy father is, of course, dead set against his daughter having any kind of caffeinated fun. So he tries to ban her from the drink. Aria bitterly complains:

Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

The copywriters at Starbucks marketing department couldn’t have written it any better. Eventually, daughter and father reconcile when he agrees to have a guaranteed three cups of coffee a day written into her marriage contract. You can get a taste of the Cantata above, or watch it in its entirety below. The lyrics in German and English can be read here.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.


by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

  • vinz

    Actually, the linked video is NOT the “whole thing”. The full cantata is made of 10 numbers, while the video shows only the final trio.You can listen to it all here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC5KpmK6oOs

  • http://www.openculture.com Dan Colman

    Thanks Vinz,

    We added your clip to the post.

    Cheers,
    Dan

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