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Chapter 104 BWV 211 Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
Be quiet, do not chatter (the Coffee Cantata).
Recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–recit (bass/sop)–aria (sop)–recit (bass/sop)–aria (bass)–recit (bass/sop)–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–trio (tenor/bass/sop).
A musical drama for Zimmermann’s coffee garden.
What can one say that has not already been said of a work that almost certainly enjoys the position of being the best known and loved of Bach’s secular cantatas? Like the Peasant Cantata, it is not about winds, oceans mythical or historical characters; this is a miniature operetta about recognisable people, their preoccupations and interests. It evokes, for the modern listener, echoes of that attractive and manipulative minx, Suzanna, in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and it doubtless was composed to be presented dramatically for the entertainment of the customers in Zimmermann’s coffee house. Dating from the mid 1730s, it remains a perfectly conceived mini-drama that amuses and reflects aspects of human characteristics with which we all find ourselves familiar.
And yet it is a modestly scored chamber piece, requiring fewer than a dozen musicians, a string quartet, bass, flute, harpsichord and three singers.
The text was written by Christian Henrici, better known as Picander. Bach is known to have collaborated with him in several cantatas from 1725. It is possible that they worked together earlier than that (the unknown lyricist for the cycle 2 chorale cantatas?) But there is no documentary evidence of this. They also collaborated in the creation of the Peasant Cantata and the St Matthew Passion.
Tenor (narrator) recitative.
The role of the tenor is minimal but important. As in the passions, he is the narrator who, in this work, sets the initial scene, sums up towards the end and contributes to the closing ensemble. Otherwise we have a soprano and bass, a father and daughter whose relationship many can readily attune to, even today.
The opening tenor recitative addresses the audience, commanding attention whilst setting out the basic scenario—-be silent, do not chatter and listen—-Mr. Schlendrian approaches with his daughter, Liesgen—-he is growling like a bear—-but hear for yourselves what she has done to him.
Several points are worth making about this brief (8 bar) introduction. The first is its conciseness and efficiency in performing the task of introducing the main characters. Secondly, it establishes the disposition of at least one of them. Thirdly, it suggests a degree of sympathy for the father, thus setting up a situation which has theatrical potential—-see what she has done to him!
Lastly, note Bach’s insertions of the dotted chords in the continuo part. They attract attention in a way that a simple unadorned secco recitative might not do, as well as suggesting the grumbling of the parent. This is a masterly opening, composer and lyricist working together in perfect harmony.
Bass (father) aria.
The father’s first aria outlines those aggravations with which every parent is familiar—-do we not have a myriad of frustrations with our children—-I say the same thing every day to my daughter and it bears no fruit whatsoever! A sense of dogmatic irritation immediately pervades the movement, the opening semi-quaver motive clearly suggestive of the father’s protests as it transfers itself quickly to the continuo line (bars 3-4).
The singer’s opening theme is built around several repeated quavers, followed by a descending semiquaver scale suggestive of a minor eruption of pique or bad temper.
It is not possible to describe exactly in words just how these musical ideas seem to carry the character and mood of the frustrated parent so accurately; but they do, and within a few bars we sense precisely what the man is thinking and how he feels!
This might be a convenient moment in which to pause to consider the similarities and differences between the first three arias. The first two are in ternary/ritornello, but not strict da capo form, the A sections modulating to new keys and therefore requiring modifications when they return. All make ingenious use of three- rather than four-bar phrases, thus creating a natural flow, less predictable, contrived or ‘arty’ than they might otherwise have been. The two masculine movements (for the bass) are in four-time, that for the daughter in a softer three beats-per-bar. Each movement has a different colour and character, the first with strings, the second flute obbligato and the third continuo only. Clearly, much thought has gone into the structure of, and contrast and relationships between, these three movements.
Returning to the first bass aria, the middle section begins from bar 21 but the insistence of the father’s quavers remains undiminished. In fact, the only time that his melodic line alters in character comes with the frustrated wailing of the last piece of the text—-nothing I say makes any difference (from bar 37).
As with each of these three movements, it ends with a complete reprise of the ritornello theme.
In the next recitative, father and daughter embark upon some direct dialogue—-you wicked child—-how can I achieve my objective of getting you to give up your coffee? Her initial response is to plead—-oh Father, do not be so hard—-if I don’t get my three cups a day I will end up like a desiccated old goat! Is there just the slightest implication that she might be poking a little fun at her own father’s appearance?
The recitative writing is succinct and lacking in explicit imagery; Bach’s aim is to get the words and characters of the two participants across quickly and clearly. The shaping of the melodic lines is done with great care however, his forceful and dogmatic and hers pleading and importunate.
Soprano (daughter) aria.
Liesgen now has the chance to make her case in an aria which is minor mode, and suffused with the most ornate of flute melodies. It is worth noting how Bach constructs the ritornello theme; two three-bar phrases, a little rush towards the cadence and then a stream of triplets. The mood is one of sensuous beseeching with a hint of feminine guile; Liesgen is no wall flower but a strong minded young woman who, as becomes increasingly clear, knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Here she sings of her love of coffee in a manner that is decidedly sensuous, almost sexual—-I must have my coffee, sweeter than kisses or wine—-it’s everything I need for refreshment! Twice the music pauses on an unresolved chord as Liesgen goes into a momentary reverie, apparently daydreaming about the delights of her indulgence.
In the next recitative (no 5) Schlendrian makes the mistake that all fathers make, he threatens her with the withdrawal of privileges—-she shall not walk out, have a new dress or finements, attend weddings etc. She, it appears, is happy to do without them so long as she has her coffee; or so she pretends.
The exchange ends with her father bemoaning the fact that she appears to want nothing from him:– apparently it is checkmate!
His aria expresses, yet again, something that parents will sympathise with—-stubborn girls are not easy—-you’ll be lucky if you can find their weaknesses! The continuo line is packed with character, highly chromatic and suggestive of irritation and irascibility.
Once again, Bach commences with a three-bar phrase and the vocal writing is forthright and direct. This aria is more through-composed than the previous two and the melismas towards the end remind us of how little Bach has used this device so far in the cantata. On kömmt—-and—-fort—-they emphasise the good fortune of the man who finds his daughter’s weak spots, a line which also delivers the neat little codetta (bars 51-3) completing a perfectly crafted operatic soliloquy.
But whatever his reservation might have been, he finds the appropriate solution; or so he thinks! He now plays his trump card; in short, there will be no husband for you if you continue to drink coffee. Liesgen agrees to this immediately; a little too quickly one suspects, as she gives the impression, to the audience if not to her father, that this was what she was after all along. Schlendrian concludes on a positive, even smug note—-well then, you shall get a husband, then.
But this is not quite good enough for the wilful lass. Having extracted the agreement in principle, she wants action immediately! Her next aria is devoted to this very point as she entreats her father—-do it now, this very day, so that I may take a lover to bed instead of coffee! That sounds quite satisfactory for all concerned but, as we shall see, she is determined to have both!
Her aria is, as was the first of her father’s, supported by strings. However Bach has also added an Alberti-like left hand figuration for the harpsichord which provides a sophisticated lilt to what is already akin to an urbane dance movement. The phrases are now in four-bar units and the aria is, by far, the longest in the cantata.
It is also a movement of great charm and coquettishness. The emphasis which is given to the phrase Ach, ein Mann—-ah, a husband—-is expressive and romantic, suggesting the fluttering of teenage hearts (see bars 32-4 and elsewhere).
Some listeners may feel that the little skirls on the first violins are included for similar effect! The melisma on ‘wachen’ at the end of the B section implies that the young lady is certain to be awake and alert when it is time to receive her gallant lover!
Some critics have conjectured that the last two stanzas, not a part of Picander’s original script, may have been added by Bach himself. Whosoever provided them demonstrates a sound sense of both dramatic and musical imperatives. As to the latter, they provide for a tutti ensemble in which all instruments and the three singers combine to create a satisfying conclusion. Dramatically, it allows for the young lady to emerge victorious, getting everything she wants.
In the final recitative the tenor informs us, quite confidentially, that even as her father seeks an appropriate suitor, his daughter puts it about that he will only be acceptable if she is permitted to continue with her habit!
In fact, the closing ensemble rather gives the game away—-as the cat is drawn to the mouse, so are girls to their coffee—-indeed, so were their mothers and grandmothers, so why should they be deprived of it? It is a mildly feminist conclusion in which the male is routed and the female emerges supreme. One imagines that this might have been viewed in a somewhat tongue-and-cheek fashion by Zimmermann’s clientele!
The ensemble is an archetype of three-bar phrasing which, considering the dance-like character of the theme and the long instrumental sections, may strike one as a little odd. The ritornello theme is made up of eight such phrases, one after the other.
The first two three-bar phrases.
The flute does not, for the most part, have an independent melody but embellishes that of the first violins. When the voices enter, Bach continues with the three-bar structures, which, in truth, threaten to become a little too predictable. It is a relief when we come to the imitative textures in the B section (from bar 62).
Although fundamentally a da capo movement, its proportions are unusual. The B section is much longer than the A section, ninety as opposed to just under fifty bars. Furthermore, it actually includes a reprise of the A section in full (bars 70-117) thus creating the effect of a large-scale rondo i.e. A, B, A, B1, A. There seems to have been no more reason for this than a wish to extend the happy conclusion for as long as was practical.
Did the performers present a dance in the instrumental sections? Mention was made in the essay on the Peasant Cantata, C 212 that the musical structures might have allowed for some form of physicality (chapter 98). It seems inconceivable that, in an age of evolving opera, the three performers would have just stood there, immobile, so it is a reasonable assumption that something would have been choreographed. But what it might have been and how it could have worked against the oddly asymmetrical phrasing, we can only guess. It is possible that this phrasing was conceived especially in order to illicit an amusing element of buffoonery into the dance.
But even if we cannot be certain about the mode of presentation, we don’t need to conjecture about the plot. On a smaller scale, but with a Mozartian accuracy and insight when it comes to portraying human characteristics, this little gem of a dramatic scena presents us with situations with which we can all identify. It is this quality, combined with the superior nature of the music, which has made it such an enduringly popular piece.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.