The café cantata, an honor to bad girls

Dany Marquis

Music softens morals, they say. It rocks us, calms us, rests us. Even more so when the piece comes from the classical music repertoire. Coffee tends to make us feverish, to excite us, to stimulate us. A little boost, almost guaranteed, no matter the time of day. Or at night, for night owls, night owls…

Not really a joint symbiosis, hooked atoms. Both music and coffee flourish in their own world; they seem to move away, to distance themselves both in their psychological attributes and their physiological effects. Sublimation, interiority and relaxation for music lovers, stimulation, excitement and passion, for coffee lovers. A marriage that is, to say the least, incongruous and improbable. At first glance, just at first sight...

And yet! At some point, the two, music and coffee, came together, got married. A few centuries ago already. A long, long time ago, in the 18th century, in Leipzig, in East Saxony. Amazing, right?

Do you know La Cantata du café ? In any case, I, an addicted drinker for a long time, was unaware of its existence. Imagine, a musical and vocal communion between what relaxes and what excites. Enough to mess up any toupee. And yet, it came to fruition well and beautifully.

Around 1734, at the Caffee-Hauß Zimmermann , one of the eight " cafes " in Leipzig, a poem by Christian Freidrich Henrici known as Picander , Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be silent, don't chat), was set to music by a friend, a faithful collaborator, to be played publicly in this place which also served as a concert hall, where the students of the Collegium Musicum , the then renowned conservatory of this city, performed weekly. At the time, the elite and nobility met there, crowded there on Fridays to drink their coffee and listen, among other things, to music, notably this Kaffee Kantate . Who is the author ? Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach . Does this pique your curiosity? Oh yes! One of the masters, if not the undisputed master of the Baroque, the same one who composed the Brandenburg Concertos then, this famous Toccata for the organ, you know, the Ti-dedi--Ti-di-didi-di-di que l 'we sometimes hum in our heads...

Bach and Picander then committed themselves to a secular musical work, one of Bach's rare forays into the world of social satire, which mocked the marked assiduity of the "lipsians" to the last flavor of the month, coffee, a fashionable drink, consumed in Europe since the end of the 17th century, first in England, then in France, Austria and Germany. Go understand their designs! A light warning or a playful wink about a habit now well anchored in the customs of this era? I don't know. Let's explore further... From the little story transposed into verse and music.

But what does the recitative tell of this work in ten movements, designed for three soloists, a tenor, a bass and a soprano, accompanied by a flute, two violins, an alto violin and timpani? Simply a dialogue between a girl, Liesgen , and her father who scolds her because she prefers to drink coffee, at least three times a day, an obvious nuisance, in the father's eyes, to find a husband worthy of the name! Submissive, the docile child abdicates. Momentarily and only in appearance, because, on the sly, she plots the inclusion of a “coffee” clause in her marriage contract giving her complete freedom to consume this nectar at will.

What lies behind this protective warning against the scourge of indulging in daily coffee drinking? So diligently? Well, perhaps, the effect of caffeine on the bodies of its German coffee drinkers who were instead treated to a rather pungent beverage, drawn from a Turkish-style decoction, which could be enhanced with sugar, cloves, of cardamom or a decoction of milk and sugar, first boiled, to which coffee was added, to be reserved then, reheated later, using a bain-marie, a completely French preparation , imported from the fashionable cafes of the time. Or even worse, a supreme calamity, the occasional attendance of a public place, by a young girl, a debutante, without a male escort, without paternal permission! Coffee, a drug and a place of perdition! A handicap for a young girl looking to get married... You have to see, You have to see... Let's settle it. This did not prevent Bach from marrying one of his daughters, Elisabetha Juliana Friederica , nicknamed Liesgen , the recalcitrant child highlighted in the recitative of his cantata, some 15 years later with one of his students, the organist Johann Christoph Altnickol .

In 1734, however, Liesgen was only eight years old, when she married, 23 years old. Bach was then 64 years old and was spending his last year here on earth. In Liepzig. All we can say is that she was married for just ten years since her husband died in 1759. The couple had three children, a son, who died at a very young age, and two daughters who lived and married in Leipzig, where Elisabetha died in 1781.

Had Elisabetha known as Liesgen defied paternal authority and wandered around the city's cafes in her early twenties? Had she included a “coffee” clause in her marriage contract? Was she addicted to coffee? Frankly, no one knows… Although we could also answer yes and no.

Yes, she found a husband, despite this “unpleasant” habit. Fiou! Coffee is not an obstacle to getting married, nor for a father, his daughter and his future son-in-law. Unless perhaps she refrained from doing so, for the duration of a very domestic visit and a secret visit to the family notary. Ah! Naughty Liesgen !

No, coffee consumption does not seem to have had any harmful consequences, neither on the metabolism of some, nor on the mental health of others. Unless they were doped with too much caffeine, they all lost the map during a misplacement they suffered one Friday at the concert. Excited, they would then have feverishly agreed, in a common solemn declamation, yes, we love coffee and will drink it without getting tired, in tune with the performance of a cantata played and sung, precisely that of coffee, as if by chance. Nothing tragic there; music softens morals and tempers moods, it seems.

Also, continue to enjoy this beverage, morning, noon or evening, at home or in a café, try the one from Brûlerie du quai, there is nothing to fear. Isn't the story, that of father and daughter Bach, a comforting guarantee?

Happy discovery.

Here for those who want to listen to a complete version of this work by Bach, the KaffeeKantate (BWV 211) . Attention, almost 28 minutes, sung in the language of Goethe .

In terms of the bibliography, the hyperlinks, taken from a summary Web search, will allow you to find out more about Bach, Picander, the “cafes” of Leipzig, his daughter and his son-in-law. A simple, unpretentious introduction.

John B.

Jeans B logo
Old, but not zen. Damn ! More like semi-retired. Yeah ! Addicted to coffee and cats for a long time. Wow! Former history teacher in some “adversities”, with techno-pedagogical practice. Ugh!  Oh yes ! Likes to write and read. Thrillers full of stories, well!


  • Mireille

    Ah! Fort intéressant comme histoire! Il pourrait y avoir matière a un long métrage de cette époque prolifique et un peu mystérieuse … Et en romancer l’épilogue quelque part entre l’Acadie et la Gaspésie! Ah ah.

  • Marie-Hélène Fortier

    Super article qui m’en apprend certainement sur l’engouement du café au XVIIIe siècle! Merci!

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