Bach & Sons: At the Cafe Program Notes

C. P. E. Bach’s Concerto in G Major was first heard on the organ in 1755, at the inaugural of Princess Anna Amalia’s new instrument in the Berlin City Palace. Bach himself later transcribed it for flute, very likely for use at daily concerts at the court of Frederick the Great, whose insatiable appetite for flute music kept Emanuel Bach and his Berlin colleague Johann Joachim Quantz, Frederick’s favorite composer and flute teacher, busy for many years. That this work remained a part of Bach’s concert repertoire, even after his move to Hamburg, is suggested by the survival of several later cadenzas by the composer for each of its three movements. It is a substantial piece, with an extended first movement that contrasts dramatic opening gestures and unison tutti with delicate filigree for the soloist, a wonderfully tragic slow movement, and a light-hearted, even rustic, final movement full of brilliance and good humor. 

A member of Emanuel Bach’s literary circle, Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, penned the text of Die Amerikanerin, whose musical setting by Philipp Emanuel’s younger brother Johann Christoph Friedrich fed the growing fascination with American culture in the late 18th century. J. C. F. Bach spent nearly fifty years at the at the court of Count Wilhelm of Schaumburg-Lippe at Bückeburg, whose success in the Seven Years’ War brought both prestige and increased cultural activity, at least for a time, to an otherwise provincial court. Solo cantatas set to lyrics by leading poets were de rigueur, and having married a singer who was the daughter of a court colleague, J. C. F. Bach was only too happy to oblige with several “monodramas” that are among his most imaginative creations.

Die Amerikanerin: ein lyrisches Gemählde is, as its subtitle suggests, a lyric depiction of a characteristically 18th-century transformation. Waiting endlessly for his beloved, the poet/singer allows his love for Saide (whose charms are lifted straight out of the Song of Solomon) to become an unhealthy obsession, in which he imagines her imperiled by nature’s darker side: tigers, serpents, and various unnamed monsters. The work’s own transformation—its original 1773 title, Song of a Moor, was switched in 1776 to The American Girl, perhaps in honor of the American Revolution—neatly summarizes European fascination with the latest cultural “other”: native Americans. The cantata’s moral, that even the most painful hallucinations are good for the soul, sits somewhere between the sentimental and the operatic.


At least one early source for Sebastian Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” carries the subtitle Dramma per Musica, an unlikely designation perhaps for Bach, who never wrote an opera, but one that suggests that this piece was intended to entertain—unlike his church cantatas, which served to instruct and edify the faithful—and perhaps that it was meant to be acted out. Written for performance by the Leipzig Collegium Musicum (which Bach led) in Zimmerman’s Coffee House, the work dates from the early 1730s, when the coffee craze was at its height. Long satirized as the cause of exotic disease, moral ruin, even death, coffee was actually a very popular (if strictly regulated) drink in many cities in the early 18th century: the Leipzig town council began licensing—and taxing—coffee houses in the 1690s.

Picander’s libretto for the work, though full of platitudes (one aria asserts that coffee tastes “sweeter than a thousand kisses, milder than muscatel wine”), rehearses the timeless story of a grumpy old man (Schlendrian, which in German means a “stick in the mud” kind of guy) whose daughter (Lieschen), having discovered a forbidden pleasure, refuses to give it up until her father threatens to prevent any prospect of marriage. Bach’s music veers from an enraged patter song to ornate, spun-out Baroque tracery—ironically, for some over-the-top hyperbole in praise of coffee—and finally to swinging melodies straight out of comic opera. Tonight’s staging updates the venue a bit, replacing one coffee-obsessed era with another (our own) while attempting to recreate some of the hearty Gemütlichkeit Bach and his friends must have enjoyed at Herr Zimmerman’s establishment. 


In 1782 Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, a leading poet of the German Enlightenment, penned an ode entitled Morgengesang am Schöpfungfeste (“Morning Song on the Feast of Creation”) for C. P. E. Bach to set to music. Their fortuitous collaboration did not go unnoticed: a review of its inaugural performance in 1783 noted that the work is “full of sublime simplicity…seldom have poetry and music been more fortunately united.” And indeed, Bach’s music makes the most of Klopstock’s vivid imagery: in the opening measures, for example, where the sun’s absence is keenly depicted with a lowing melodic figure begun in the bottom register of the accompanying strings. The Sun’s eventual appearance is celebrated not merely for its salubrious effect on the natural world and humankind; an explicitly Christian message is also woven into Klopstock’s ode. Unresolved tension between these two poles—traditional Christian doctrine vs. the Enlightenment—animates the last several sections of this ambitious work scored for four voices, flute, and strings.


© Matthew Dirst