Although Johann Sebastian Bach was a serious man, his miniature comic opera the Coffee Cantata (also known as Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, “Be still, stop chattering” BWV 211) shows a lighter side to the composer. The piece, composed sometime between 1732 and 1735, involves a young woman named Liesgen who is in love with and addicted to coffee.
Bach wrote the cantata for a group of musicians that he directed known as the Collegium Musicum. This group, originally formed in 1702 by George Philipp Teleman, met at a fashionable coffeehouse in Leipzig called Café Zimmermann or Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus. The café owner, Gottfried Zimmermann, allowed the group to practice and perform at his establishment for free. He also charged nothing for attendance at their performances. Instead, all his profits came from the sale of coffee at the gatherings.
The performance involves only three singers. The first is the narrator who appears at the beginning and end of the piece. The second is Liesgen, a young German woman who is about 20 years of age. The final character is Liesgen’s father Herr Schlendrian.
At the beginning of the piece, the narrator appears and tells us that Schlendrian is angry and “growling like a honey-bear.”
Schlendrian then performs an aria (solo vocal piece) in which he laments his daughter’s love for coffee and her refusal to heed his advice and quit her caffeine habit:
Don’t we have with our children a hundred thousand muddles! What always every day I say to my daughter Liesgen goes in one ear and out the other.
As his daughter appears, he continues.
You bad child, you wild girl! Oh! If only I could have my way: get rid of coffee!
A defiant Liesgen then sings of her love of coffee:
Father, don’t be so hard! If three times a day I can’t drink my little cup of coffee, then I would become so upset that I would be like a dried up piece of roast goat. Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, smoother than muscatel wine. Coffee, I must have coffee, and if anyone wants to give me a treat. Ah! Just give me some coffee!
Her frustrated father tries all sorts of threats but none of them work. He tells Liesgen that unless she gives up coffee she may not have fashionable new clothes or sit idly at the window to watch pedestrians or even go out for a walk. Liesgen remains undeterred.
Finally, Schlendrian promises his daughter that if she stops drinking coffee he will find a husband for her to marry. Liegen readily agrees to the deal and begins to sing:
Ah, a husband! That’s just right for me! If only it could happen at once, so that at last instead of coffee before I go to bed I could get a lusty lover!
In a final twist to the story, the narrator appears and tells us that Schlendrian did indeed go off to find his daughter a husband. But Liesgen has no intentions of keeping her promises. The narrator sings:
But Liesgen lets it be secretly known: no suitor of mine should come to the house unless he himself has promised and it is written also in the marriage contract that I shall be permitted to make coffee whenever I want.
The performance ends with a chorus singing of women and their addiction to coffee.
The cat does not leave the mouse, young ladies remain coffee addicts. The mother loves her cup of coffee the grandmother drank it also. Who can blame the daughters!
Below is a performance of the Coffee Cantata by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir conducted by Tom Koopman.