Cantata BWV 211, Coffee Cantata

During his time in Leipzig, Bach was responsible not only for music for the church, but for a good deal of music for the community. His collegium musicum in Leipzig was the principal beneficiary of Bach's secular music composition, including, in all likelihood, this Coffee Cantata.

Although nowadays we associate really good coffee with France and Italy, coffee did not arrive in Europe until about the same time that Bach was born. It did not take long, however, for coffee to become the fashionable drink in European cities, and by the time Bach wrote the Coffee Cantata (around 1732-1735), coffee houses were commonplace.

The work can be viewed as a miniature opera - although Bach never wrote any operas in his life. (It was the only genre of his day in which he contributed nothing.) The text was written by Picander (pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici, who contributed a number of texts for Bach, including the poetic texts in the St. Matthew Passion).

The work is scored lightly, for three solo voices (soprano, tenor, and bass), strings, flute, and continuo. Only in the final number, which bears the designation "coro" (usually indicating chorus), do all voices and instrumentalists participate. The use of the term "coro" was a common device in operatic works of the time; could Bach have been thinking of this as a miniature opera?

More than his other works, Bach's Coffee Cantata presents a little drama. It begins with a recitative, rather than a concerted, melodic work, for solo tenor and continuo. The tenor, our narrator, appears only in this first and final numbers. He begins with the text:

Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
und höret, was jetzund geschieht!
Be quiet, stop chattering
And listen to what will happen now!

This serves the role of an overture, fanfare, or theatre bell; the narrator appears to be speaking to the invisible patrons in the coffee house, but his announcement helps quiet the audience and focus their attention on the drama about to unfold. The narrator then announces the arrival of Herr Schlendrian (solo bass) and his daughter, Lieschen (solo soprano). But the continuo serves as another character here, with its dotted rhythms (marked "con pompa" - with pomp) mocking Herr Schlendrian as he approaches the coffee house.

BWV 211 Example 1

The drama unfolds between Schlendrian and his daughter. She will not obey him, he reveals in no. 2; in the following recitative (no. 3), we discover that the culprit, the vice causing her disobedience, is coffee, which fuses together two other genres with the solo aria: the trio sonata and the minuet. It is a trio sonata in that Bach includes two independent and equal melodic lines with continuo. The obbligato flute is completely independent of the soprano, sometimes standing entirely on its own (as at the beginning, the ending, and in transitions between verses); it never takes the deferential role of resorting to playing in parallel thirds or sixths with the voice. At the same time, this piece is a minuet (as identified by Little and Jenne, in Dean and the Music of J.S. Bach); that is, it is a medium tempo, triple meter movement which symbolizes elegance and nobility (the minuet may have started in the lower classes,but it eventually became strongly associated with the aristocracy). What is unusual, however, is that the phrases here are grouped in threes, where we are conditioned (by the Viennese Classicists, primarily) to expect four-measure phrases.

The next movement is another simple recitative. Schlendrian threatens his daughter: he will not give her a wedding breakfast, a fancy dress, a walk, a silver or gold decoration for her bonnet...if she will not give up coffee. She chooses coffee over all these things. In the next aria (no. 6), Schlendrian sings again of his daughter's obstinacy (and that of all women). In the subsequent recitative, he finally gets the brilliant idea to tell his daughter that she will not be able to marry unless she gives up coffee - something she is suddenly quite willing to do. in the da capo aria which follows (no. 8), Leischen sings blissfully, anticipating the greater joy a husband will bring, instead of that of her coffee. The narrator returns in the recitative (no. 9) to announce how the drama concludes. Schlendrain decides to rush off to find a husband for his daughter; Leischen, meanwhile, has secretly announced that she will put in the marriage contract a stipulation that she be permitted to brew coffee whenever she wants! The text for no. 9 does not exist in Picander's text; apparently, Bach added this little plot twist himself.

The concluding piece (no. 10), marked "coro", involves the full complement of voices and instrumentalists. It is a bourreé (Little and Jenne), but has the feel of a chorale fantasy, of the kind Bach might write to pen a chorale cantata. The instruments set the tempo, key, and mood, keeping the texture rhythmically lively. The singers enter, almost always simultaneously and in a homophonic texture; the strings and flute double the voices, while the continuo keeps the motion alive. Bach writes two da capos in this movement: one after the first verse returns the music to the opening; after the repeat, the music continues to stanza two, at the end of which is another da capo marking. Thus, the opening instrumental passage is heard three times.

Mere words cannot express the general delight of this work of Bach; one must hear it, following the libretto, to appreciate all its charms, and then lament that Bach never produced a full comic aria for the ages. This is as close as he gets.