Johann Sebastian Bach

Monday, July 7, 2014

I’ve been listening to Great Courses lectures about master composers. Some of them lived fascinating lives, so I’ve decided to feature four on my blog during July.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, located in present-day Germany. He was both the progeny and the patriarch of a musical family. Bach’s father, uncles, and brother were all professional musicians, and several of his sons became well-known composers in their own right.

Married twice (his first wife died when he was 35), Bach had twenty children. Ten survived into adulthood. Composing was part of his professional responsibilities, but it was his skills as an organist that paid the bills for his large family. Bach had achieved neither fame nor riches when he died in 1750, and his genius as a composer was not recognized until years later.

After several other gigs, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen as a court musician. He enjoyed his early years there, but budget cutbacks and the animosity of Prince Leopold’s new wife convinced Bach that his career at Anhalt-Cöthen was over. In desperation, he applied for the position of director of music in Leipzig, where he endured a discordant relationship with the churches and the town council that paid his salary. Even so, he spent the rest of his life working for them.

Bach is best known for his church music. A deeply religious Lutheran, he wrote “SDG” on many of his compositions. Those initials stand for “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory).

But he had a much wider range than many people realize. Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations as lullabies for Prince Leopold, who had trouble sleeping. These days we fall asleep to recorded music, but the prince had his own harpsichordist.

As far as I’m concerned, Bach’s most interesting composition is the one known as the Coffee Cantata. It is essentially a short comic opera about coffee addiction.

First, a little background. In Bach’s day, many areas of Europe banned coffee. Leipzig, on the other hand, had several thriving coffee houses, probably welcomed by the city for the licensing fees they paid. Zimmerman’s coffee house was host to the Collegium Musicum, which was a formal group of student musicians directed by Bach. Apparently he wrote the Coffee Cantata for the Collegium Musicum to perform.

The plot is simple. Schlendrian is Lieschen’s father, and he is not happy with her coffee addiction. He threatens to take away her pleasures, including the right to stand by the window and watch people walk by. As he names those pleasures one by one, she repeatedly responds that she doesn’t care as long as she has her coffee. Finally, Schlendrian says Lieschen will have to resign herself to never having a husband. That gets her attention, and she tells him she will give up coffee for marriage. (The audience is left to wonder if marriage was her goal all along.) As her father goes off to find a husband, the narrator tells the audience that Lieschen has sent out a secret message to potential suitors. The content? They won’t win her hand unless they agree to let her have her coffee.

The Coffee Cantata ends as the three characters (Schlendrian, Lieschen, and the narrator) sing the following chorus (translated from the German):

The cat doesn’t leave the mouse,
Young women remain coffee sisters.
The mother loves the coffee custom,
The grandmother drank it also,
Who will mock the daughter now!

And you thought Bach was stuffy.


* The 1784 portrait is by Haussmann.

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