Monday, March 23, 2009

Coffee and Marital Bliss

For an artistic reference to coffee's popularity in 18th century Europe, we need to probe further back in time to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Carlo Goldoni (Venice, 1707-1773), both of whom foresaw coffee as a possible impediment to a happy marriage.

Below: Bach by Elias Haussmann, 1746

J.S.Bach, Coffee Cantata, 1732 Libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici Composed to be performed by Bach's Collegium Musicum at Zimmerman's Coffee House, Leipzig, between 1732 and 1734. We have in America but few morning classical music programs broadcast by radio, but can you imagine a chamber orchestra performing live and frequently at an urban coffeehouse?

Zimmerman's (below) in Leipzig, Germany, is where Bach's orchestra gave
regular concerts. Bach composed this piece as a wry jibe at his coffee-loving friends. The central issue here is whether or not a marriage can sustain a coffee addiction without mutual consent.

Synopsis of the Cantata: A father deplores his daughter's coffee habit, threatens to cut off affection and gifts, and even warns that marriage seems unlikely if she persists. The daughter gets around this by letting it be known about the town that, in fact, she welcomes lovers or a husband as long as her love of coffee can continue uninterrupted.

Schlendrian: You wicked child, you disobedient girl, oh, When will I get my way; give up coffee!

Lieschen: Father, don't be so severe! If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.

The Cantata continues to attract a popular audience, even today.

Left: Zimmerman's Coffee House, Leipzig.

Osvaldo Goldoni, The Coffee Shop, 1750-51 (English Translation, Marsilo Publishers, New York, 1998)

Coffee habits were interesting among the early literati, too, and the best example is the famous Italian comedy by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, La bottega del cafe. It is actually a comic morality play, with the wild interplay of characters that we find in opera, without the music. And it was merely one of many similar works composed by the author.

The action unfolds in a coffee shop that is managed by a good and honest man but whose customers run the spectrum from confidence men to adulterers and thieves. While the customers come and go, gossip and plot their moves - a neglectful husband, a gambler, a gossiping nobleman - they drink their coffee under the watchful eye of the sensible and patient owner, Ridolfo.

Why a coffee shop? Left is William Hogarth's engraving "Morning" (1738), a scene set in London's Covent Garden, in front of Tom King's Coffee House. In the 18th century it was more or less a red light district. At this early hour, we meet icy aristocracy passing by, but also drunks and lascivious behavior.

The coffee houses of Italy and France enjoyed mixed reputations. Some might have been known for sophisticated conversation among men of learning while another was considered a den of thieves. Authors of that time frequently used them as stage settings because they were open to the street and allowed writers to create a variety of characters as they dropped in for coffee.
In the end, justice prevails.

One thinks of Rick's Place in the 1942 film, "Casablanca."

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