Sabbath musical delight: Bach’s Coffee Cantata BWV 211, a comic opera in miniature

One of the places where J. S. Bach made music in Leipzig, outside his official duties as Thomaskantor, was Zimmerman’s coffee house, where he would perform with the Collegium Musicum. Bach himself appears to have been very fond of the beverage, as the inventory of his estate contained no fewer than five coffee pots.

He even dedicated a secular cantata to the beverage, “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” [Be quiet, don’t chat]. The libretto, written by his frequent lyricist Picander [best known for having written the libretto of the Matthew Passion], depicts the exasperation of a stick-in-the-mud father about his daughter’s addiction to the beverage, and her defense against him. Eventually he realizes the fight is hopeless and they reconcile. On an amusing note, the daughter is called Lieschen (“Little Lisa, Lizzie”), which was also the nickname of the Bach’s’ daughter Elisabeth (she would later marry Bach’s amanuensis J. C. Altnickol).

Bach never wrote an opera even though Leipzig had an opera company, but was clearly not above “word painting” in music in his cantatas, nor above inserting what he otherwise would dismiss as “cute little ditties”. The Coffee Cantata is perhaps the closest he ever came to writing a miniature comic opera. The full libretto in German (with parallel English translation) can be viewed here. Some of the imagery is quite droll, like Lieschen saying she will turn into a shriveled piece of goat roast (Ziegenbraten) if she doesn’t have her three cups of coffee daily. As admitted caffein addicts ourselves, Mrs. Arbel and I cannot resist smiling at that.

Enjoy and Shabbat shalom!

One thought on “Sabbath musical delight: Bach’s Coffee Cantata BWV 211, a comic opera in miniature

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