Posted in Kafevend Blog

Though you might proclaim yourself a raving fan of coffee, are you fanatical enough to have written a musical about it? That is what today's subject, Johann Sebastian Bach, did during the early 18th century.


Born in 1685 in the town of Eisenach in central Germany, it is no surprise that Bach was due to lead a musical life. His father Johann Ambrosius Bach was the director of the town's musicians. Not only that, all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father and his brother, Johann Cristoph Bach, taught him how to play a variety of instruments early on in his life. He attended St. Michael's School in Lüneburg in northern Germany for a couple of years. After graduating he went on to hold many musical posts throughout the country. His service to music eventually earnt him the title of Royal Court Composer in 1736.


One of Bach's roles during his life was as the director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society, in the city of Leipzig from 1729-1737. Weekly performances were hosted at Café Zimmerman, the largest coffee house in the city at the time and a major draw for the more well off. No fee was paid for hosting the concerts, or by the audience- the sheer amount of coffee bought at the events was enough to cover the expenses! It seems reasonable to assume that Bach sampled the drinks on offer from time to time, especially given his creation of a piece of music known as the 'Coffee Cantata' which he played in the coffee house.


The cantata was essentially a miniature comic opera. In it, a father tries to figure out how to stop his daughter drinking her beloved coffee. He threatens to take away her meals, fine clothes and such like but none of the threats work. Eventually however, he does find one way of stopping her- if she doesn't give up coffee, he will prevent her from marrying. She promises to stop if he can find her a suitor. Pleased with his success, he goes out to find someone suitable- however, she secretly tells her potential husbands that if they want to marry her, they will have to let her drink coffee. By the end, the father, daughter and narrator sing the moral of the story, that drinking coffee is perfectly natural.


Whilst it certainly might sound fairly banal to us, at the time it was a rather daring piece. There was a lot of opposition to drinking coffee during this period from all levels of society- even royalty itself. In Sweden and England alone, laws were passed- or were attempted to be passed- banning its consumption, along with huge taxes when this failed. Bach's 'Coffee Cantata' then was a topical satire and its audience isn't that far off us when we sit down to enjoy an episode of 'Have I Got News for You' or 'Mock the Week' today!

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