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,(Translation: Pamela Dellal)
girls remain coffee-sisters.
The mother adores her coffee-habit,
and grandma also drank it,
so who can blame the daughters!
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.