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.

Gabriella Smith: “Carrot Revolution”

The future of classical music is a shaping up to be a promising one, especially with such a solid generation of young composers on the horizon. From the hyperkinetic sound worlds of Andrew Norman to the Hindustani influences of Reena Esmail, there is sure to be no shortage of vibrant new music in the future. (Though it will be up to orchestras and other arts organizations to actually program this music—stay tuned for a post about this in the near future…)

Located within this department of “up-and-coming composers you should know about” is the Northern California-born Gabriella Smith. With a number of prestigious chamber and orchestral performances already under her belt (including the LA Phil), she clearly has a promising career ahead.

Currently, one of Smith’s best-known pieces is the amazingly-titled string quartet Carrot Revolution, written for the Aizuri Quartet in 2015 and recorded for the first time this past fall. The work immediately strikes the listener as something totally fresh, yet familiar. Percussive string effects at the opening give way to a wild musical journey, complete with snatches of minimalism, bluegrass, and rock along the way. (Keep an ear out for a glimpse of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley“). It’s a breathtaking, eleven-minute ride for both the quartet and listeners, but one that is well worth taking.

John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

You’re so close, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and South American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and classical choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving, account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers over the centuries. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

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