Bach's Coffee Cantata

BWV 211-212 in Apple Music (lyrics)

Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be still, stop chattering), also known as the Coffee Cantata, is a secular cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed it probably between 1732 and 1735. Although classified as a cantata, it is essentially a miniature comic opera. In a satirical commentary, the cantata amusingly tells of a woman’s dependence on coffee.

The work lampoons both the wild popularity of coffee in 18th century Leipzig, as well as the mildly sanctimonious belief held by some of Leipzig society at the time that coffee drinking was a bad habit that needed to be broken.

During his tenure in Leipzig, toward the middle of his career as Cantor of St. Thomas Church, Bach was heavily involved with the city’s Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by Georg Philip Telemann in 1702. Bach assumed directorship of the collegium in 1729 and began to perform with the ensemble regularly at Café Zimmerman (Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus), a coffeehouse and local social centre for gentlemen in Leipzig.

The story tells of a disgruntled father, Schlendrian, who argues with his caffeine-obsessed daughter, Lieschen, about what he perceives to be her bad habit of indulging in too much coffee. The opera consists mostly of a back-and-forth dialogue between these two characters; bewildered by Lieschen’s devotion to the drink, Schlendrian unsuccessfully tries to bribe his daughter into renouncing caffeine while Lieschen evades his commandments with clever maneuvers and outright disobedience.