Bach’s Delectable “Coffee Cantata”

J.S. Bach never wrote any operas, but his secular Cantata—Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211—is probably the closest we’ll get to hearing what a Bach opera could have been like. Commonly known as the “Coffee Cantata,” this mini drama for small orchestra and three singers was likely first presented in 1735, at the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Coffee drinking was the new craze sweeping Europe, but for some, the drink was still controversial, as its side effects were not fully known yet. (If only they could fast-forward to the twenty-first century!)

Bach’s Coffee Cantata is charming, humorous, and, yes, a tad ridiculous. The plot follows a young woman (Lieschen) who is chastised by her father (Schlendrian) for her coffee-drinking habit. Schlendrian threatens to take away Lieschen’s possessions and privileges in an attempt to win her obedience but to no avail. Finally, when the father vows to prevent his daughter from marrying, Lieschen agrees to give up coffee. But, Lieschen has one final trick up her sleeve: she tells potential husbands that their marriage contract has to allow her to drink coffee whenever she desires.

The moral of the story comes in the final chorus:

Cats do not give up mousing,
girls remain coffee-sisters.
The mother adores her coffee-habit,
and grandma also drank it,
so who can blame the daughters!

Pamela Dellal

Recently, the Netherlands Bach Society—who is in the midst of a multi-year project to create high-quality video recordings of Bach’s works—mounted a staged version of the Coffee Cantata. The results, seen below, are delightful and only amplify the charms and humor of what is perhaps Bach’s quirkiest work.

An English translation of the Cantata’s German text can be found here.

R.I.P. Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

On September 21, 2019, the classical music world bade a sad farewell to Christopher Rouse, one of America’s most esteemed contemporary composers. Winner of numerous awards—including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto—Rouse’s compositions reflect a vast and sophisticated musical palette, treading confidently between ear-shattering dissonances (heard in his jaw-dropping tone poem Gorgon) and sweeping neo-Romanticism (displayed in the poignant Flute Concerto).

Rouse was also an expert craftsman of musical color and composed exceptionally well for the orchestra. In the last year of my undergrad, my college orchestra programmed his Der gerettete Alberich, essentially a “fantasy” on themes of Wagner for solo percussionist and orchestra. Though the horn part was one of the most challenging I’ve yet to learn in an orchestral setting, I was struck by Rouse’s penchant for dynamic extremes and careful scoring to avoid a haphazard, “we’re playing loud for loud’s sake” feel. His novel, touching, and even humorous transformation of Wagnerian gestures—all in a non-kitschy manner—was also admirable (especially in the luminous six-part horn canon about 3/4 of the way into the piece). It was an immensely rewarding experience.

Christopher Rouse’s passing occurs—sadly—mere weeks before the world premiere of his Sixth Symphony by the Cincinnati Symphony. (The New York Philharmonic’s 2016 recording of his Third and Fourth symphonies—posted below—is absolutely stunning.) Based on the recent outpouring of reminiscences from friends, colleagues, and admirers, it is clear that Rouse and his music will be remembered and performed far into the future.

Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor

Despite his inseparable association as the creator of twelve-tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg held a deep affinity for music of the past. His early pieces, such as Guerre-Lieder and Verklärte Nacht, reflect an extension of the sweeping, late-Romantic idioms of Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler. Even many of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone works keep one foot rooted in an earlier era. His 1923 Suite for Piano, for instance, bases each of its movements after Baroque dance forms, similar to models used by J.S. Bach. Schoenberg’s admiration of his musical forebears can be observed further in his small, but respectable output of arrangements, transcriptions, and adaptations of other composers’ works. The results are remarkably varied, ranging from a grand orchestral transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major to a delightful chamber arrangement of the German Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”).

Perhaps one of Schoenberg’s best-known arrangements is his orchestral transcription of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, which was created at the request of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Otto Klemperer. Klemperer had been planning a Brahms cycle for the orchestra’s 1937–38 season and believed that an orchestral version of the quartet would provide an appropriate capstone for the project, with Schoenberg as the ideal candidate to transcribe the work. Klemperer and Schoenberg had known each other in Vienna, and both had just recently moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, part of the growing community of artists, writers, and musicians who settled in Southern California after fleeing the threat of Nazi Germany.

Schoenberg was thrilled with Klemperer’s request. The music of Brahms held a special place in his heart, and this specific work was particularly beloved, as Schoenberg had played the quartet many times in his youth as both a violist and cellist. In a 1939 letter to the music critic Alfred Frankenstein, Schoenberg further outlined his intentions for taking up the project: 

“Here [are] a few remarks about the ‘Brahms.’ 

My reasons: 

1. I like this piece. 

2. It is seldom played.

3. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

My intentions:  

1. To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. 

2. To watch carefully all these laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate [any of those] which are only known to musicians educated in his environment.”

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