Sunday, 6 September 2009

Coffee Shop Cantata

I am alone in the 'bridge at the moment. Well, no, that's not quite true: there are some other people here too, but I don't know any of them. Not wishing to turn into an accidental hermit because of this lack of companionship, I have been taking little knitting breaks in various purveyors of hot beverages around town.

I wrote the title to this post and uploaded these photos last night; they are, from top to bottom, an elegant Art Nouveau cafe in Lavapies in Madrid, an achingly cool place called La Cabra en el Tejado in La Latina, and Le Cafe des 2 Moulins in Monmartre, where Amèlie worked in the film. I had a long rant planned bemoaning the sorry dearth of decent coffee shops such as these in Cambridge, and the ebola-like spread of Costas, Neros, and especially Starbucks (I believe there are five in the city centre).

Then, serendipitously, what should come on Radio 3 but Bach's Coffee Cantata, and before I could call after it, my brain had wandered off in another direction entirely. For those who haven't heard it, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht ('Be still, stop chattering'), unofficially known as the Coffee Cantata is a most beautiful and joyful piece of music, with sparkling soprano arias and a lively final trio.

It also offers an intriguing and witty glimpse into eighteenth-century Leipzig. In the piece, Schlendrian commands his daughter Lieschen to give up her incessant coffee-drinking. Lieschen responds defiantly that: 'If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times a day, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.' Schlendrian threatens to bar her from all other forms of entertainment; Lieschen does not care, so long as she can drink coffee. Finally, he warns that she will never find a husband unless she gives up her caffeine habit; she appears to relent, but secretly puts it about that she will only marry a man who will allow her to continue drinking as much coffee as she likes.

A number of aspects of this sparked my curiosity. Initially I interpreted it as story of female empowerment: daughter outwits father in order to live her life as she pleases. Any proto-feminist point, however, is undercut by the comedy of the piece, which would surely have been heightened by the fact that Lieschen would originally have been sung by a boy. Furthermore, the cantata was in fact first performed in a coffee-house, so the whole tale can be read as a knowing wink to the audience (perhaps the first line, 'Be still, stop your chattering' should be seen in this light?).

Why might Schlendrian object to Lieschen's habit in the first place? Is it coffee-drinking in general he disapproves of, or does the fact that she is a women worsen the situation? In a wonderfully dated article in The Musical Quarterly from 1932, Charles van den Borren claims that: 'tobacco and coffee have often caused trouble between man and wife. The wife - before cigarette-smoking was adopted by an emancipated fairer sex - was inclined to frown upon the "smoke nuisance" as injurious to the atmosphere and to her pretty white muslin curtains, while the husband would accuse his better half of an immoderate indulgence in the stimulating infiltration of the coffee bean.'

I wondered whether it might be the social context of his daughter's coffee-drinking that made Schlendrian uneasy: perhaps he is concerned at what she gets up to at the coffee-house. Certainly some were insalubrious locales, such as Moll King's establishment in Covent Garden, depicted by Hogarth in his 1738 engraving 'Morning' as a place where wayward young men used coffee in order to be able to continue their illicit deeds through the night and into the morning. Eighteenth-century coffee-houses performed numerous different functions, however, the majority of which appear to have been intellectual rather than carnal, as 'Penny Universities' - cheap places to exchange information (the popular name for Moll King's coffee-house was 'King's College', a satirical take on this idea). The place of women in these debates is unclear. Although 'King's College' might be 'no place for a lady' it was, obviously, owned by one, indicating that women evidently did have some role to play in coffee culture. I have come to no firm conclusions on this matter. Indeed, Lieschen's desire to make herself a coffee, as opposed to purchasing one made by some one else, may signal that hers is a selfish pleasure rather than a social one.

In my wanderings about the internet in search of information on early modern coffee drinking, I came across this lovely description of Cambridge students: 'It is the custom after chapel to repair to one or other of the coffee houses (for there are divers), where hours are spent in talking, and less profitably reading the newspapers, of which swarms are continually supplied from London.' I have a nice mental image of people in seventeenth-century clothes sitting in Starbucks and leafing through the Metro.

I also indulged in some embroidery doodling today. Here is a crap webcam photo thereof.

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