Caffeine and Counterpoint
According to Garrison Keillor, "Lutherans drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament." This was not always the case. In the first half of the 18th century, many Germans looked askance at java, considering it a pernicious import. Additionally, some European princes forbade or heavily taxed coffee, in part to protect locally produced beverages from competition. Nonetheless, Leipzig boasted many lively coffeehouses. It was, after all, a college town, and higher education requires caffeine.
In one of those coffeehouses, Zimmerman's, a group of mostly student musicians known as the Collegium Musicum met every Friday to give informal concerts. Bach directed the group, and around 1732 he wrote the perfect piece for it: the Coffee Cantata.
A cantata—a standard vocal form of the era—unfolded a theme through a dramatic story. Sometimes this theme was secular, and sometimes it was sacred. The Coffee Cantata apparently carried no sacred overtones. Albert Schweitzer, in his two-volume analysis of Bach, noted, "it aims only at refreshment." Bach adapted the lyrics from a story his chief librettist, Picander, had published in 1727. Picander generally showed more creativity with secular than sacred subjects, and this tale displays a delightfully light touch.
The cantata begins, "Be quiet, stop chattering, and pay attention to what's taking place." A surly German father, Herr Schlendrian, is quarreling with his daughter, Lieschen, about her coffee habit. Schlendrian exhorts her to give up the brew, threatening to withdraw privileges until she obeys. Lieschen pouts, "If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat."
Finally, Poppa thinks he has found her weakness; he swears ...