On Coffee, Cantatas and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Your Musical Patriot has returned from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, held this year in Boston—if you have the nerve to call the “redeveloped” harbor district where the meeting was held “Boston.” This desert of overpriced glass and steel could be detached from the peninsula of the old city and dragged across oceans to any global hub, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, without anyone being able to divine its provenance. Having flown in from around the country and the world, the musicologists didn’t pay much heed to their pre-apocalyptic surroundings. Instead, they busied themselves with scholarly inquiries that ranged across the centuries and the globe, from “A Genealogy of the Recital Encore” to “Rethinking the Vibrational Politics of Solidarity in the Anthropocene.”

There was business to be done, too: books to be pitched and launched—including my own! Surfing the wave of enthusiasm that surged through the carpeted corridors and faux-colonial ball rooms of the convention hotel, I offer this excerpt from one of the later chapters of my recently published volume Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks.

Bitter Bean and Loose Ließgen — On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Anna Magdalena’s musical albums were precious personal belongings to be used alone as well as shared with other members of the family. The owner filled in many of the pages with dances and songs, while her husband contributed ambitious keyboard works, and her children and stepchildren their early compositional efforts. This fare was infused with music and ideas from beyond the home. Amongst the Notebooks’ fashionably cosmopolitan minuets and polonaises there were grand connoisseurs’ suites whose nationally-inflected movements made for a veritable travelogue through Europe. Along these imagined journeys, the traveler could fortify herself with pious chorales and devotional melodies, and also indulge in diverting reflections on the joys of tobacco, and by implication, other bourgeois pleasures enjoyed in the home and in public places like Leipzig’s many coffee houses. Galant songs of love and sadness charmed and consoled, gracing the private realm, but suitable, too, for informal gatherings in semi-public salons.

This musical mélange expressed refinement at the keyboard and away from it. The Notebooks reveal that the Bach family (with its Wilcke addition) was changing: the contents belong to a world different from that of their forbears, those countless musicians who had so long lived and worked in Thuringia and Saxony: galant culture molded the conception of music and the good life embodied in the albums. Notebooks like Anna Magdalena’s were an expression of elevated bourgeois living, like the coffee service and other fashionable accessories that graced the Bach home. The Notebooks were—and are— emblems of feminine accomplishment and improvement, both musical and social.

If, as so many enthusiasts and scholars have maintained, the Notebooks offer an intimate glimpse into the marriage of Anna Magdalena Wilcke and Johann Sebastian Bach, these collections also reveal much about relationships among the generations and, more generally, between the sexes. The Bach daughters must have used their mother’s Notebooks, too, even if, in contrast to the boys, no girl’s hand has yet been identified in their pages. All the children were musically talented and trained, though the quality and scope of their tuition was certainly determined by gender. The males were being prepared for professional careers in the family trade, but the females, too, learned to sing and play. The Notebooks would have helped the girls to develop their musical skills and in so doing to increase their attractiveness to prospective spouses. In this chapter I want to examine a constellation of concerns involving sex, love, marriage, consumer culture, and upward mobility, and follow these themes out across the threshold of the Cantor’s apartments into urban, Enlightened Leipzig. There we can learn much about the hopes and fears Anna Magdalena and her husband harbored for their female children. Contemporary debates about daughters and fathers, mothers and marriage, pleasure and obedience throw light back on to the uses and meanings of the music of the Notebooks and the woman they belonged to.

Fashionable female enjoyment of coffee, clothing, and song was both encouraged and contested by authors and composers in books, conversations, and music—words printed, spoken, and sung. Contributions to, and awareness of, these debates was both a sign of cultural currency and itself a form of galant delectation. The refinements of dress, deportment, and singing were practiced at home, but they were also performed in public, perhaps even by the musical Bach daughters. Four of these girls survived to adulthood: did they enjoy more than simply singing about, or listening to, songs like the Aria di Giovannini (BWV 518) inscribed in Anna Magdalena’s 1725 Notebook and devoted to the promise and perils of hidden love? Did its message speak to their own expectations and desires? Did the Bach girls delight in coffee, conversation, and courting, as well as in vocal and keyboard performance? All these questions were encompassed by the most important one of all: Would the Bach daughters be married?

Public Consumption

As the Bachs’ library reminded them, finding a husband for a family’s young women and sending them safely out into the world was a basic duty of fathers—and sometimes mothers, especially when they were widowed. This parental worry is at the center of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) and demands attention, literally so when, at its very start, a tenor springs up from the midst of a noisy coffee house or somewhat less boisterous salon, to command the assembled company to:

Quiet down, stop jabbering,
And listen to what happens now:
Schweigt still, plaudert nicht
Und höret, was itzund geschicht:

The announced entertainment is not only to be watched by those gathered, but also to be participated in. The lines are delivered as recitative, direct musical speech in the present tense addressed to the audience, interrupting the din and inviting all to eavesdrop on a spat between the cantata’s two characters: the hapless father, Schlendrian, and his impudent daughter Ließgen. The text once again is by Johann Sebastian Bach’s main literary collaborator in Leipzig, Picander, who also wrote the libretto for the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), but this coffeehouse tenor does not stick around like the persistent Evangelist does on Good Friday. After making his public-service announcement, the pop-up narrator withdraws as quickly as he had appeared to let the father-daughter pair spar and pout without him: their conflict over coffee is a family matter aired in public. There is no instrumental prelude or introductory snippet to clear the air. Instead this opening plunges the action into its social surroundings, reveling in performance in a vibrant Leipzig nightspot. It is a comedy not just staged in the public sphere but proudly, even obstreperously, part of it.

The Coffee Cantata was composed sometime in the first half of the 1730s during Johann Sebastian Bach’s tenure as director of one of Leipzig’s two Collegia musica. The ensemble he led presented its programs in Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse or, in the summer, in the owner’s pleasant garden near the city’s Grimma Gate. Given the subject matter, Zimmermann’s establishment has seemed to most historians the likely performance venue for the piece. More recently, however, Katherine Goodman has proposed that the piece could have been performed at sometime Bach collaborator Christiane Mariane von Ziegler’s salon, held in her grand house just down the Catharinenstraße from Zimmermann’s. The cantata could well have been presented at both venues: the piece has all the traits of a favorite that, like the beverage at its center, was ready for reheating wherever coffee was drunk—which was pretty much everywhere in Leipzig during the Bachs time there.

A 1725 guide to Leipzig by the Dresden auctioneer Johann Christian Crell writing under the pen name of Iccander—a moniker not coincidentally close to that of Picander since both belonged to a literary society called the Blumen– und Elbschwanorden whose members favored such Greekified pseudonyms—gives a vivid impression of the lively milieu into which the cantata’s opening lines were tossed:

The entertainment of both locals and outsiders of high and low standing belonging to both the masculine and feminine sexes is increased by the eight officially-sanctioned public coffee houses, which are rightly famous both on account of their lovely settings, view, and pleasant accommodations, as well as by virtue of the grand assemblies that appear there, since the people who gather find pleasant diversion partly in the reading of all kinds of newspapers and historical books, and partly in society games (Academie de Jeux)—ingenious and permissible amusements such as chess, ladies’ games, and billiards.

Not mentioned here is music, though along with the pastimes listed by Crell, we see this being pursued in the famous frontispiece to Sperontes’ Singende Muse, that defining image of galant Leipzig, and a publication contemporary with the Coffee Cantata.

Leipzig’s other Collegium Musicum also held its musical evenings variously in the town hall’s wine cellar (Ratskellar) and another of the city’s famed locales, Helwig’s Coffee House. To be heard at all these venues was cosmopolitan music well-suited to the galant set. That the lady closest to the viewer in the Sperontes’s image plays the clavichord conveys how porous the border was between private and public spheres when it came to feminine music-making. She appears to be reading from an unseen book, perhaps, one is encouraged to imagine, a must-have publication like the Singende Muse itself. Or maybe she has brought along her own notebook. A well-dressed man at her table is listening intently: is he a suitor, the woman’s music master, or both? As the satyr hiding beneath the pair indicates, the gentleman’s focused attention could well be motivated by romantic interest, but it also seems to demonstrate the importance of women’s music-making as something that participated in, and contributed to, fashionable topics and tastes.

Sperontes, Singende Muse an der Pleiße (Leipzig, 1736)

The opening exhortation of BWV 211 seeks not only to quell the hub-bub as if from amidst its source, but also to frame the proceedings as a play within the drama occurring every night in a coffee house—a place of argument and gossip, games and flirtation, looking and being seen. From the start of the cantata the “grand assembly” described by Crell is directly involved, activated as auditors and viewers, and afterward (or perhaps even during the music) as commentators. They are not safely insulated from the action: the tenor makes them complicit in the entertainment because the story has to do with them, their foibles and follies, desires and fears. This is social comment camouflaged as comedy.

As was often the case in the repartee of coffee house conversationalists and gamers, the digs and swipes of the Bach/Picander intermezzo found their animating hilarity in contentious current topics. The potential divisiveness of these themes gives the humor its bite; the social implications of what was being laughed at impinged directly on the Bachs themselves, especially on the women of the family. In just a few printed pages, Picander’s libretto, along with the concluding reversal of the last two numbers added to the cantata by an unknown author, rattles off a veritable wish-list of galant accessories; these goods in turn signified other larger issues confronting a society ruled by a stern theocracy, yet increasingly being pried loose from religious control by the consumerist pull of modernity and the Enlightened ethics of personal pleasure. Coffee was then, as now, more than a trendy drink. For urban dwellers in the German states of the eighteenth century it was a steaming symbol not just of luxury and leisure, but also of women’s entry into the public sphere. Iccander’s account of Leipzig locales mentions both men and women seemingly on equal footing; alongside smoking, coffee-drinking, and making conversation, women might well have sung there, too, none more expertly than the one-time Cöthen Sängerin, Anna Magdalena Bach after her arrival in the city in 1723.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com