When Art is Imitating Life: Bach and Coffee

Bach - Coffee Cantata

Since it’s discovery and consumption many centuries ago, coffee has found it’s way into many aspects of culture; for example, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Amid clinking beer glasses and the chatter of the mildly drunk patrons, a robust baritone belts out: "With children, aren't there a hundred thousand aggravations!" A few moments later a lilting soprano answers, literally singing the praises of the habit that has angered her father: drinking coffee.

"Father, sir, don't 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. ... Ah! How sweet coffee tastes, more delicious than a thousand kisses, milder than muscatel wine."

So begins Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (“Be Still, Stop Chattering”), commonly referred to as the Coffee Cantata by Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a light-hearted and relatable “mini-opera” about the struggles of parenting and how a father, Schlendrian, tries to save his daughter Liesgen from her own desires. When read today, it reveals how intensely people once feared coffee, which was regarded as a devilish drink unfit for children, women, and men concerned about their virility. That’s right, coffee, the beverage that you might be drinking at this moment while reading this article. Bach wrote the Canata in the 1730s, with the lyrics by a librettist known as Picander. Bach wrote it when he was living in Leipzig, a German city with a burgeoning coffeehouse scene—Saxony’s answer to the Bay Area or Brooklyn. Coffee had made its way to the city and much of Western Europe decades earlier, although the drink was still eyed with suspicion.


Melanie King, author of 
Tea, Coffee & Chocolate: How We Fell in Love with Caffeine, said, “Early critics of coffee felt that Englishmen, in particular, were prone to copying the Turks, whom they thought originated coffee. Coffee was described as a ‘mere decoction of the Devil” and supposedly tasted like the ‘syrrop of soot’ or the ‘essence of old shoes.’”

It also didn’t help that coffeehouses could be rowdy. Musicians played and partied, men and women mingled without proper chaperones, people told dirty jokes, and, if early European rulers’ conspiracy theories were more than just theories, political plots were born.

So, in the eyes of the fictional overprotective dad Schlendrian, coffee was no beverage for a girl from a "good" family and coffeehouses were no place for respectable women.

In seventeenth-century England, women were often barred from entry and, in Germany, female loitering in coffeeshops was discouraged enough that some women organized all-female Kaffeekranzchen (coffee circles) that provided a place for women to drink, play cards, and gossip. In fact, the cantata’s chorus ends with the hint that Liesgen had probably developed her coffee habit from her female relatives: “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?”

Schlendrian attempts numerous ways to make Liesgen give up drinking coffee. He cajoles. He even tries to ban her from attending weddings and parties. There will be no more baubles: no whalebone dress or flashy silver ribbons for her bonnet. All to no avail. Liesgen is unfazed, jousting amicably with her father. But then he ups the ante: Until she gives up coffee, there will be no husband.

Although, it seems extreme, many of Bach's contemporaries believed coffee had serious side effects, as well as medical benefits. Doctors and medical charlatans alike touted its effectiveness to alleviate constipation, cure chronic swelling or even the bubonic plague.

Rumors of the day, indicated that coffee could literally “unman” its male consumers. Bach’s cantata fits in the category of coffee humor, which included written satires positing that hanging out in coffeehouses ruined the marital union by providing public “man caves” where husbands hid to avoid their wives and domestic duties. Pundits of the composer’s era fluctuated between actually accepting that coffee could stir male sexuality or cause impotence. German doctors even fretted that coffee could cause sterilization.

Although, caffeine was not identified as coffee’s active ingredient until the early 1830s, its stimulating properties attracted the attention of early European politicians, who feared its ability to wake the sleepy and energize the sluggish. On the other hand, officials also worried that coffeehouses encouraged male loitering and laziness, not industry and work—a criticism later echoed by anti-alcohol temperance campaigners worldwide. The very name of Bach’s uptight father character “Schlendriantranslates to “lazy” or “lacking motivation to work.”

With this light-hearted cantata, Bach mocked his own city, Leipzig, where officials had previously passed edicts limiting coffeehouse hours and railed against coffee, especially for young men and women. While fearing that coffee could encourage youth to temptation and depravity, they also believed that the caffeinated brew could cure chronic disease, incite revolutions, act as a sexual stimulate, fracture families, and corrupt the impressionable.

From coffee bars to coffee Baristas…thank goodness that times have changed