It has been suggested that, since Bach had a daughter named Elisabeth, that he based the characters of the gloriously witty Coffee Cantata on himself and that daughter. Alas, this reasoning really has to be abandoned since the date of this work (around 1732-4) would have meant Elisabeth, aged 6-8, would have had to be thoroughly precocious! Still, it's still an amusing hypothesis to think that Bach may have presented himself in self-parody as the rather narrow minded and slow witted Schlendrian (the name translates roughly as "Mr.Stuck-in-a-rut" or "Mr Routine").
The story concerns Schlendrian's attempts to curb his lively and mischievous daughter Lieschen's love for coffee. He threatens her with withdrawal of privileges, which she willingly gives up in favour of coffee, and then he ups the stakes and tells her that she'll never find a man to marry if she doesn't renounce her addiction. At this, she seems to give in but the narrator tells us that any suitor of hers will have to promise Lieschen to allow her her favourite tipple. The vivacious Lieschen finally outwits her slow witted father and the final trio affirms that some minds will never be changed. Certainly not politically correct these days (unless one identifies coffee with things more potent!) but, as has been asserted many times, Bach's closest foray towards opera. Given the skill with which he musically adumbrates the characters, one is left wondering what would have happened had Bach got the job at Dresden!
The work opens with a recitative from the narrator introducing Schlendrian and Lieschen and the plodding but attractive first aria has Schlendrian bemoaning his daughter's disobedience. Lieschen's famous aria "Mm, how sweet the coffee smells" is accompanied by a tremendous flute obbligato, perhaps the finest in all the cantatas. More threats follow and Schlendrian's next aria shows him more confident in his ability to win his daughter over than subsequent events suggest he should be. Lieschen's second aria, again beautiful, shows her apparently submitting to the thought of marriage but the final recitative gives the game away. A final trio adds a suitable bit of morality to a very fine orchestral accompaniment.
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.