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In praise of Bach, coffee, and marriage

October 6, 2008

Nearly 277 years ago, Bach immortalized the nexus of coffee, female cunning, and marriage in The Coffee Cantata. Christian Friedrich Henrici wrote the libretto, and Bach’s Collegium put on the Cantata’s first performance in 1732 at Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig.

Zimmerman’s was probably the Mandolin Cafe of its day, if one could presume to compare present-day Tacoma to baroque Leipzig. Realistically, one probably should not attempt such a comparison. To see engravings of Bach’s Leipzig, including Zimmerman’s, click here.

The Coffee Cantata is a wonderfully festive, satirical piece well known to every lover of Bach and esteemed by cultured coffee aficionados.

The Cantata’s story line is simple and wastes no time. Maid Lieschen and her father are having a bit of a tiff over Lieschen’s coffee habit.

“Mm! how sweet the coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
mellower than muscatel wine.
Coffee, coffee I must have…”

“You wicked child, you disobedient girl,
oh! when will I get my way; give up coffee!”

“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 frustrated father escalates, threatening to obliterate any marriage prospect for Lieschen if she will not give up coffee. She breaks:

“From now on, coffee,
remain forever untouched!
Father, listen, I won’t drink any. . . .”

But, lest we think Lieschen’s priorities are in order, the Narrator’s Recitative reveals her secret vow:

“Lieschen secretly lets it be known:
no suitor is to come to my house
unless he promises me,
and it is also written into the marriage contract,
that I will be permitted
to make myself coffee whenever I want.”

I’m not so sure Lieschen selected the single most important criterion for a prospective husband, but at least she wasn’t too high-maintenance. After all, she only wanted to be able to make her own coffee. It wasn’t as if she was looking for someone who could keep her in Zimmerman’s coupons.

In any case, it is as difficult to overestimate the interface of coffee with courtship and marriage as it is to document it.

I have recently resumed drinking coffee after a year off from all caffeine. The time-out turned out to be an unnecessary deprivation. To make up for lost time, and just because my taste inexplicably upgraded, I switched to espresso.

Now coffee has taken on new importance. I have a cup in the morning with my husband, and a cup in the early afternoon, at 1:00 if my routine is intact. By 12:40 I’m on countdown.

Mornings I make a French press of coffee for my husband and a stovetop machinetta of espresso for myself. I don’t at all mind cleaning up two coffee devices. So far as I’m concerned, the more engagement with the brew, the better. I hope this isn’t the sign of some sort of unhealthy overfondness for the stuff. I don’t think so: I’m down from the three pots a day of my law school years, to a derisory two cups. My husband’s coffee habit has modulated similarly. We have no recorded document mentioning coffee.

My law school days were rife with coffee adventures. The evening before my first day of school, I bought a coffee maker with an automatic timer. I could program Mr. Coffee the night before to make coffee in the morning, and I would fill my thermos on the fly before rushing off to class.

I set up Mr. Coffee that night. In the morning, my first day of classes, I raced downstairs to pour my freshly made coffee into my 32-ounce Stanley stainless steel thermos, a relic of American workmanship. But there was no coffee. The unit was plugged in. The lights were on. Mr. Coffee’s heating element was defective. I didn’t want to get rattled…surely there would be coffee at school….

There was no coffee, and no time to go to the U-Cen before class. I knew I was about to be the first student in my law school’s history to flunk orientation.

Before commencing the first night’s prodigious stack of reading, I exchanged Mr. Coffee for one that lasted about a year.

About a month into our first semester, one of my classmates coined the saying, “Lauren’s little drinking problem.” Carl was referring to my uncanny flair for spilling coffee on my white sweater. If I wasn’t wearing a white sweater, it seemed I could drink successfully without dribbling.

But by far the most hapless coffee casualty was the loss of my Stanley thermos, still three-quarters full of coffee. Food and drinks were prohibited in the law library, and I left my thermos on the table outside the library door. When I came out, my thermos was gone.

A friend persuaded me to call campus security. A “campo” (campus police) came over, took my statement, and assured me that they took these things seriously. I refused to permit a search of my classmates’ carrels. We concurred it was likely that a homeless person walked in the door, snatched my precious thermos, and took off. I didn’t mind so much springing for the thief’s coffee, but he could have returned my thermos when he was through.

I replaced my Stanley with a compact Zojirushi that fit in my backpack, where it secretly remained with me in the library at all times. Its cap is a demi-tasse cup, and the stainless steel-lined carafe holds 10 caps full. I still have the sleek red Zojirushi; I daresay I’m probably a little overprotective of it.

Like Lieschen, I make my own coffee. Once I acquired the knack of making stovetop espresso, I was making the only coffee I really take pleasure in drinking.

But I pity Lieschen. Had she actually lived, she would have left the world at least a century before the advent of espresso. Who knows whether espresso would have tempered her daily habit from three bowls to a couple of modest tassen?



  1. October 6, 2008 7:11 am

    I love this! Thank you so much. Have you heard of Malcom Bilson? I just heard him with my husband here in Austin.

    I love coffee, but I don’t make my own.

  2. October 6, 2008 7:53 am

    Thanks, Lavanna. I’ll watch for Malcom Bilson, in case he shows up in Tacoma or Seattle.

    I’d think if you can paint like that, you can make coffee! I know, I know…it’s the cafe experience….

  3. October 6, 2008 2:03 pm

    Well, I had thought myself an ardent lover of Bach, coffee, and marriage, but had never heard/heard of this cantata! For shame. Thank you for the exposure. I want to add it to my small Bach collection now.

    I have a similar two-cup routine, only I take my second cup much later in the afternoon. Yum. Loved your stories from law school.

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