J.S. Bach's "Maedchen, die von harten Sinnen," from Coffee Cantata, BWV 211
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 13, 2017
Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, VA
Peter Walker, bass
Anna Steinhoff, cello
Heather Miller Lardin, violone
Keith Collins, contrabassoon
Mark Shuldiner, harpsichord
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Given all that J.S. Bach (1685-1750) did in various genres of music, it is frequently noted that he wrote no operas. This contrasts with his famous contemporaries like Handel, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti, who each wrote many. Clearly, Bach did not feel a compelling inner drive to compose Italianate opera in that language or any other. Nor did he have an external motivation, since nearly all of his positions called for new sacred music each week. The exception seems to be the roughly 50 secular cantatas that Bach created for diverse occasions, mainly dating from the early 1720s when he worked at Köthen and then Leipzig. In particular, a few years after his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, Bach took over the reins of the Collegium Musicum, an instrumental club of sorts that had been started 20 years earlier by Telemann. This ensemble became an important forum for Bach’s interest in secular music.
One of the Collegium’s venues was Zimmermann’s coffee shop, located just off Leipzig’s main market square. Every week Bach’s band would perform to the delight of friends and customers (let’s hope the cappuccino machines were quieter then!). Bach would compose or ar-range chamber sonatas, overtures, and numerous concertos for that set-ting, as well as several secular cantatas. On this last point, the so-called “Coffee” Cantata from 1734 surely merits comment. BWV 211 Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, represents Bach’s closest approach to opera, a genre he seemed otherwise intent on avoiding. The scenario depicts a cantankerous, protective father (in the mold of The Doctor) named Schlendrian (which translates roughly as “stick-in-the-mud”) and his capricious, caffeine-addicted daughter Liesgen, who will not sacrifice a cup of Joe to marrying a real Joe. All the operatic features are in place: alternations between recitative and da capo arias, memorable tunes, and a central conflict that needs reconciliation. The first soprano aria (no. 4) celebrates the charms of coffee, and one wonders whether Bach received a kickback from Zimmermann for plugging his wares. In general, given rather tired clichés of Bach as the staid, overly-pious technician, it is refreshing to see him and his music thriving in realms outside the sanctuary, to have images of the actual venues, and to meet the friends and colleagues that he would have seen on a daily basis.
(c) Jason Stell, 2017
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