an ode to coffee

"Les buveurs de café," by Flemish painter Paul-Joseph Delcloche (1716-1755)

Les buveurs de café,” by Flemish painter Paul-Joseph Delcloche (1716-1755)

Ah, coffee! The drink adored by artists around the world for centuries: musicians, painters, philosophers, writers….Without the late-night spurts of energy fueled by this fragrant, smoky black drink, who knows how much more barren our libraries and museums would be?! (Pardon my hyperbole…maybe I’ve had a little too much myself this morning.)

Coffee came from the Middle East to Europe through the trading ports of Venice, and even Pope Clement VIII could not resist its allure, saying, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage!” Thus, in 1600, he declared coffee Christian, ignoring protests to ban the “Muslim drink,” and opened the door for coffee to saturate the West. (Thanks, Pope Clement. You the real MVP.) Coffee houses throughout Europe quickly became popular places for social gatherings, and the Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus–or “Café Zimmermann”–in Leipzig is one of the most famous, for hosting public concerts in which many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas were performed…including:

The Coffee Cantata.

Zimmermann's coffeehouse, from a 1732 engraving by Johann Georg Schreiber.

Zimmermann’s coffeehouse, from a 1732 engraving by Johann Georg Schreiber.

“Coffee Cantata” is the popular name for Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (BWV 211) (translation: “Be quiet, stop chattering”–the narrator’s exhortation to a rowdy, caffeine-amped audience at the beginning of the cantata), composed sometime between 1732-1735. The story tells of a young girl, Lieschen, who is addicted to understands the incomparable pleasures of coffee. Her father tries to prohibit her from drinking it, upon which she protests:

Herr Vater, seid doch nicht so scharf!
Wenn ich des Tages nicht dreimal
Mein Schälchen Coffee trinken darf,
So werd ich ja zu meiner Qual
Wie ein verdorrtes Ziegenbrätchen.

“Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.”

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
  Coffee, Coffee muss ich haben,
  Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
  Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”

It’s a classic tale of struggle and anguish, featuring an overbearing father and an oppressed daughter who must choose between her family and her one true love: the new strong, dark, bold-roast stranger in her life.

(Again, pardon the hyperbole.)

After escalating threats from the father–no parties, no gifts–the daughter finally relents when he tells her that he will never let her have a husband if she does not give up coffee. “Fine,” she says, “I won’t drink any more!” But the narrator lets us in on a little secret–while her father goes hunting for a husband for her…

…Liesgen secretly spreads the word:
no suitor comes in my house
unless he has promised to me himself
and has it also inserted into the marriage contract,
that I shall be permitted
to brew coffee whenever I want.

This delightful cantata ends with all three characters–father, daughter, and narrator, singing about the biological mandate for coffee-drinking:

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!

You can listen to the whole cantata below, while reading the German libretto and English translation here.

More coffee-related reading:

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