Late Baroque: Gimme Coffee

Battle_of_Vienna_1683_11(Battle of Vienna, 1683)

Throughout the 17th century, Europe was fighting the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were narrowly prevented from seizing Vienna in 1683, and came close to the city walls again in 1716.

Although the Viennese and the Turks were mortal-ish enemies, Vienna was swept with a craze for a new beverage introduced by the Turks: coffee. Legend has it that the first coffeehouse in Vienna was opened by a soldier who had come upon some sacks of unfamiliar beans in the Turkish camp. When he attempted to cook them, he ended up with coffee — the first coffee to be drunk by a citizen of Vienna. He added sugar and milk, and voilà. Coffeehouses soon spread all over Europe (they had been in existence in England for a few decades already).

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Johann Sebastian Bach was a frequent customer at the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. In fact, the Café Zimmermann hosted a music society, called the Collegium Musicum, which put on many of Bach’s secular cantatas in the space, including the Coffee Cantata.

In the Coffee Cantata, a father, Schlendrian, and his daughter, Lieschen, are at loggerheads. She loves coffee. Really loves it. She sings a love song to her coffee which includes the following lines:

If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I would turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.
Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses.

Schlendrian, however, thinks Lieschen drinks too much coffee, and tells her he won’t let her get married unless she give it up. Lieschen agrees, but secretly tells her potential suitors that if they want to marry her, they’re going have to let her drink coffee. In the end, father and daughter both come to an agreement that “drinking coffee is natural.”

As the eighteenth century crept onwards, the Baroque began to give way to new stylistic developments. In this 1749 scene by the French painter Francois Boucher (called Morning Coffee!), we see the ornate ornaments of Baroque design brought into a domestic interior. All the elegance and grandeur of Baroque architecture is scaled down here: it is family-sized and intimate. The people are looking at each other, turning towards each other, smiling, and touching. The child has toys — a new development in the history of child-rearing. And, of course, they are drinking coffee.

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In music too, we begin to see the impressive structures and textures of Baroque form begin to make way for a new simplicity and intimacy. The musical style of the late Baroque, which bridges eras between Baroque and Classical, is known as style galant, or, in German, as empfindsamer Stil (sensitive or emotional style).

One of Bach’s many children (he had twenty in all), Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, was a master of this style. Like his father, he was a keyboard virtuoso, and wrote many solo pieces for the harpsichord and clavichord. His keyboard writing gives the impression of spontaneity and improvisation — one of the hallmarks of empfindsamer Stil.

Coffee and coffeehouses would go on to play a major role in the revolutionary intellectual movements of the late eighteenth century, but that’s a topic for another post.

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