Food and drink trends affect us all, often crossing cultural, temporal, and geographic divides. Consider, for example, classical music composers Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 to 1750) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 to 1827): Though their lives were separated by twenty years, both drank coffee as if — as the saying goes — “it was going out of style.” (Coffee arrived in Europe during the 17th century.) It’s been argued, in fact, that coffee played a major role in classical musics proliferation, enabling composers like Bach and Beethoven to write beloved Brandenburg Concertos (Bach) and Für Elise (Beethoven).
Coffee and Classical Music
Today, classical music is a cafe playlist staple. Soothing and wordless, studies suggest it enhances focus and eases anxiety. Additionally, a 2003 study found that in restaurants where classical music played in the background (versus no music or pop music), customers spent more money.
Bach’s Peculiar Coffee Opera
The classical music-meets-coffee association began with Bach in the 18th century. It’s widely reported that the composer once said, “Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.”
The Baroque composer so loved his cup of joe that he wrote a mini opera about it. Called “Coffee Cantata,” the piece follows a father as he tries to convince his daughter — whom he believes has developed an unnatural obsession for coffee — to stop drinking the stuff. The father goes so far as to bribe his daughter to settle down with a husband instead of indulging in her daily cups of joe. She, however, outwits him by inserting a clause in her marriage contract that allows her to brew coffee whenever she wishes. Racy for its time, “Coffee Cantata” was first performed in 18th-century Leipzig, Germany, where imbibing at a coffee shop was a fashionable diversion. Watch the video below to see a modern performance of the opera by the Netherlands Bach Society.
Beethoven’s Precise Coffee-Making Technique
While coffee served as inspiration for Bach’s work, the drink shaped Beethoven’s everyday routine. Perhaps as a result of his deafness, which he dealt with from age 28 onward, Beethoven’s sense of taste was keen — specifically when it came to coffee. His biographer Anton Schindler described coffee as the “one indispensable item” in the composer’s diet. “For breakfast he drank coffee, which he usually prepared in a glass coffee-maker,” Schindler wrote in Beethoven as I Knew Him. “He estimated sixty beans to a cup and would often count them out, especially if there were guests.” (Typically, whole coffee beans are measured by weight.)
Beethoven was also known to work in coffee shops. According to Schindler, the composer “often visited restaurants and coffeehouses, which he always entered by a back door — where he could sit in a private room.” Anyone who wanted to see him was sent to the private room since, writes Schindler, “his habits never changed and he always chose a coffeehouse near his home.”
Famed composers, it turns out, are crave the same creature comforts as the rest of us. Maybe the distance between us isn’t so great, after all!