There’s no question that at this time of year our tea pots and coffee machines are doing extra duty. And the warm drink jokes are flying, too. Listeners send me the funniest ones, often about the need for coffee: “First I do the coffee, then I do the things,” and “The ‘ea’ in tea is silent,” were just two of the most recent.
But love of the warm cups isn’t something new. At the same time that coffee drinking was becoming widespread, 16th century clergymen were petitioning to have “this devil’s brew” banned. It wasn’t until Pope Clement VIII drank some, liked it and gave his blessing, that people felt free to drink without recrimination.
In the late 17th century, coffee houses started springing up all over Europe. What was it about this amazing drink that energized one into being more productive, even more creative? Composers not only loved their brews, they also saw coffee houses as places to perform music and coffee as a worthy music subject.
Georg Philipp Telemann jumped on the idea of coffee house concerts, in which you would bring new music to a place where people were already gathering. In 1701 he founded a music society, the Collegium Musicum, made up of university students who performed in one of Leipzig’s coffee houses. He later took that same idea with him to Frankfurt for performances in a private club where people drank coffee and smoked.
Telemann’s good friend, Johann Sebastian Bach, loved his coffee, too. What’s not known is whether or not he was already a coffee drinker when he took over Telemann’s Leipzig concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse. What is known is that some prominent Europeans of the day believed that coffee drinking could lead to an addiction that would result in poor morals for women, and possible impotence for men. It’s possible that the “evils” of coffee addiction were the underlying theme that drove Bach’s comic piece, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (“Be still, stop chattering”). In what has come to be known as his “Coffee Cantata,” a father tries to ban the drink to stop his daughter’s addiction.
Liesgen, the daughter, sings, “Coffee, I have to have coffee, and if someone wants to pamper me, ah, then bring coffee as a gift.” Later she claims that, without coffee, she will “turn into a shriveled-up roast goat.”
Her father goes so far as to say he’ll prevent her from marrying if she cannot stop drinking the brown brew. Liesgen says she‘ll tell potential suitors they must allow her to drink coffee if they are to marry. All ends well with her father writing into her marriage contract that she must be guaranteed three cups of coffee a day.
Here’s Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and guest soloists with the piece.
How much did Bach love his coffee? It is said that he could drink up to 30 cups a day!
Mozart also loved his coffee. In a 1791 letter to his wife, he wrote, “Right after you left I played two games of billiards … then I sold my nag for 14 ducats; then I had Joseph summon Primus and bring me black coffee, with which I smoked a wonderful pipe of tobacco; then I orchestrated almost all of Stadler’s rondo.” The description of working under a combination of caffeine and nicotine could easily have been written by someone today!
No surprise, then, that his characters mention coffee (and hot chocolate, which was also appreciated for its caffeine effect), in at least two of his operas. In Don Giovanni the protagonist calls to the servants to bring a drink which will make his intended conquest loosen up: “Ehi! caffè!” The character Leporello adds “Cioccolata!” To which the peasant Masetto answers “Ah, Zerlina, giudizio,” or “Ah, Zerlina, be careful!”
In Act 1, Scene 1, of the opera Così fan tutte, the old philosopher Don Alfonso is sitting in a coffee house, debating with other patrons about human nature, especially women’s nature. In the next scene Despina, the housemaid, is whipping hot chocolate for her mistresses, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Here’s Teresa Stratas singing the role of the maid.
O dearest ladies,
You have the substance,
And I only the smell!
Damnit, I’m going to try it.
[She tastes it]
[She wipes her mouth]
Goodness, it’s my ladies!
Although Mozart’s works often mention wine, it is pretty telling about the growing popularity of coffee and hot chocolate that they, too, are featured drinks.
Beethoven was also a coffee lover. One of the first things he did when he arrived in Vienna was to invite his teacher, Haydn, for a coffee. Later, he had instructions written for his housekeeper that he would start each day with a cup made from exactly 60 coffee beans.
The French writer Honoré de Balzac quoted the Italian opera composer Gioacchino Rossini as saying that the effects of what we’d call a “caffeine rush” today would wear down with time. “Coffee is a matter of fifteen or twenty days: luckily, the time to make an opera.”
If Beethoven was particular about his perfect cup, and Rossini was worried about a caffeine “plateau,” Glenn Gould had them beat on quantity. The celebrated Canadian pianist described himself in a 1979 TV documentary as regularly drinking “gallons of coffee.”
Two other composers known to frequent coffeehouses were Frédéric Chopin, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Chopin began visiting cafés in Warsaw when he was a teenager so he could discuss Poland’s cultural life with other coffee drinkers. Villa-Lobos made quite a name for himself in Paris coffeehouses. The Brazilian composer held court and wove stories about exploring the Amazon jungle and confronting cannibals. People were enthralled by his tales, which turned out to be just that…made-up stories. But in the meantime, they got him local recognition.
The German composer Engelbert Humperdinck turned to the exotic with his 1898 Moorish Rhapsody. The three movements describe scenes Europeans could only imagine, including the bustling second movement’s “Night in a Moorish Coffee-House.” The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Martin Fischer-Dieskau.
Not as much has been written about another caffeinated drink, tea, but there are a couple of pieces in the classical genre.
In 1924 the song “Tea for Two” was included in the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette. It was an instant hit for composer Vincent Youmans and lyricist Irving Caesar. A few years later, the Russian conductor Nikolai Malko bet composer Dmitri Shostakovich he couldn’t orchestrate a song after having heard a recording just once, and to do it in an hour. Malko chose “Tea for Two,” which Shostakovich re-named “Tahiti Trot.”
Shostakovich not only won the bet, he did the orchestration in about 45 minutes!
In 2002 composer Tan Dun composed an opera entitled Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Briefly, a prince-turned-monk teaches lessons about life through performing tea rituals. Here’s a little bit to give you “a taste.” Tan Dun conducts this performance in Suntory Hall, Tokyo
One of the poignant moments in this full-of-symbolism opera happens at the end, as one character dies and must drink the “tea of emptiness.”
Coffee, tea, and chocolate all appear in a holiday favorite. Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, brings the lead characters, the Nutcracker Prince and the young girl, Clara, to the Palace of Sweets where Mother Ginger, Peppermint Sticks, and other delights dance before their honored guests.
Coffee is also known as the Arabian Dance. This is the scene from a Boston Ballet production:
Tea is known as the Chinese Dance. This video is from the Mariinsky Ballet.
And finally, Chocolate, the Spanish dance, is danced by New York City Ballet dancers dressed in chocolate-colored costumes.
What’s true is that whether you prefer your coffee, tea, and hot chocolate smooth, sweet, or robust…you’re sure to find something for everyone in smooth, sweet, or robust classical music.
CODA: Here’s a perfect song to wrap up how so many feel about their cups of warmth: Java Jive is often called “I love coffee, I love tea!” The King Sisters made it a huge hit in 1940.