By Ciera Miller
Coffee has always been very high ranking in my own mind, but I always thought it was a matter of my own opinion to drink the sweet, pressed Arabica beans every morning, for the caffeine, for the aesthetic, and of course, for the flavor. But it’s not so high ranking in my mind that I would write an opera around it, like Johann Sebastian Bach did in the early eighteenth century.
A little background, for Bach’s sake: coffee was introduced to Prussia in Brandenburg around 1670. It quickly spread to Hamburg, then to Regensburg, Leipsic, Nuremberg, and it was all over the country by 1720. Coffee was everyone’s favorite beverage, and so the royal family had to spend a lot of money buying it, and that didn’t sit well with King Frederick II. In order to spend less money for the production of coffee in Prussia, he made the beverage a drink of “quality” and upped its pricing so that only the wealthy classes could afford it. He thought this would lessen the coffee production and so he wouldn’t have to spend so much on everyone’s favorite bean. Of course, this created discord with the Prussian lower classes who deserved coffee as much as your average Joe (pun-intended). They began protesting for their coffee back but their demands were squandered on the wealthy, who would make excuses, a popular one being, “But coffee makes you sterile! We’re helping you!”
And of course, that didn’t stop the unconvinced public from their protest.
By 1720, Bach was the musical director of the collegium musicum for hymn writing in Leipzig and had been for a while. But he didn’t spend all his time writing hymns at the music college; he spent time performing at the local coffeehouses as well. On 14 Catherine Street, not far from the collegium musicum, stood Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus—Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse. It was the largest and most popular coffeehouse in Leipzig for middle and lower class gentlemen, most of whom were currently demanding my favorite drink but having to settle for things like beer and water instead. So, seeing these men around him in discontent, our hymnist Bach, in light of the coffee crisis, decided to join in on the protest by composing a comic opera with his partner Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote the words for the opera, to be performed at the coffeehouse around 1732.
The opera is called Kaffeekantate, Coffee Cantata, and follows the story of a man named Schlendrian who ridicules his daughter, Lieschen, for being addicted to coffee. Schlendrian attempts to convince Lieschen that he’ll give her a husband (something she wants as much as she wants coffee) if she stops drinking coffee, and excited, Lieschen complies but has a secret plan her father doesn’t know of: “No suitor is to come into [her] house unless he promises [her], and it is also written into the marriage contract, that [she] will be permitted to make [herself] coffee whenever [she] wants”. With this humorous aside to the audience, the opera ends, letting the audience picture the chaos that’ll ensue once Schlendrian returns.
Although I don’t see myself in Bach, I do see myself in Lieschen. My addiction is just as severe as hers. Like her, I will also “shrivel up like a piece of roast goat” if I don’t have my cup of coffee three times a day, and I, too, would go behind my father’s back and write a cup of coffee a day into my marriage contract so that I will never have to part from the ambrosia of the caffeine gods. I just don’t think I’d write an opera about it, even in terms of justice; I would be one of the rebels who began consuming coffee secretly and got it by stealing it from others, which is how the coffee crisis continued on until the early nineteenth century, when the prices of coffee and tea finally went down.
And though Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus no longer stands today for people to perform comic operas at or order coffee from, I think I’ll sing “I need to have coffee, coffee; if you want to give me a treat—pour me a cup of coffee!” the next time I’m ordering a latte at my favorite coffeehouse in memory of Bach and his Coffee Cantata.