Sunday, December 12, 2010

The more things change…

I love other people’s conversations – they are one of the many reasons I’m grateful my friends are so interesting (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).
For example, when I arrived to visit my writing buddy Ken the other day, he was deep in discussion with a woman who introduced herself as Ann. I dragged over a chair and propped my chin on my hands to listen in.
“What was his name?” Ann mused. “Weismuller?”
My ears pricked up. I knew that name! He was Tarzan in the old black and white movies, right?
But Ken shook his head slightly and Ann agreed that she had it wrong and went on to talk about other people – composers and musicians apparently – with Germanic-sounding names that were way off my radar screen. Until they got to Mendelssohn.
“I recognize that one!” I’m afraid I said it aloud.
Ann beamed at me and began to talk about what a gentleman he was, even though his compositions made every musician in the ensemble work all the time.
“He added notes everywhere, just for the sheer beauty of them.” Her hands illustrated the point with little butterfly movements on a phantom sheet of paper in the air. “Very baroque.”
Felix Mendelssohn also helped rekindle the popularity of JS Bach’s music, which even I know is still deservedly going strong. Ann also pointed out that Bach had quite a sense of humour.
“He wrote a ‘coffee cantata’” she said, “that is hilarious and could well be put on today with the same sentiments. We humans have always loved our stimulants!”
With gratitude to Ann (who it turns out is a member of the Lafayette String Quartet) for the education (and the chuckle) and to Ken for introducing us, here’s a little of Francis Browne’s translation of the Kaffeekantate.

The narrator begins by hushing the audience so they can eavesdrop on a father who is trying to rein in his daughter’s excesses:

Dad: You bad child, you wild girl!
Oh! If only I could have my way and get rid of coffee!

Daughter: Father, don’t be so hard! If three times a day I can’t
drink my little cup of coffee,
then I would become so upset
that I would be like dried up piece of roast goat.

Dad threatens his daughter – no more walks or new clothes or ribbons for her bonnet – but the only thing that makes her budge on her addiction is sex. She’ll give up coffee, she promises, if he finds her a husband. (A word from a fellow addict: She’s lying.)

Now that I also know that Bach (and his two wives) had almost two dozen children, I wonder whether he wrote this musical (as my husband would call it) from personal experience and whether it was one of his daughters who was the caffeine junkie, or whether JS himself needed a steady stream of java to keep his energy level up.

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