Where did Johann Sebastian Bach hang out when he wasn’t composing cantatas, organ pieces and sacred choral works for the Lutheran church? He often took to Leipzig’s 18th-century coffeehouses, where customers quaffed fashionable beverages while socializing with friends and business associates.

Bach savored more than just the beverages and company, though. Coffeehouses were a favored music venue, as well. He performed weekly with a group called Collegium Musicum, playing regularly at Café Zimmermann, the composer’s preferred Leipzig coffee stop. Hundreds of years later, those laid-back concerts are the inspiration behind Bach and Brews, a concert series by Minnesota’s Oratory Bach Ensemble.

How to capture the atmosphere at Café Zimmermann for today’s audiences? How might Bach’s secular music sound in the same kind of space where he played it? Oratory Bach Ensemble founder Matthew Olson thinks today’s taprooms provide a modern parallel.

“In 21st-century Minnesota, it’s the breweries that are energizing people toward communal gathering places,” he said.

Bach’s favorite hangout boasted an expansive coffee garden, “like a beer garden today,” Olson said. Café Zimmermann worked to lure “socially and culturally invested people to experience music in a more lighthearted atmosphere,” he said. “Many of them were the Lutheran churchgoers of Leipzig, looking for an afternoon or evening out.”

Launched in 2012, Olson’s group usually specializes in performances of the sacred cantatas Bach wrote as music director of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church. Performing on instruments from Bach’s own lifetime, with a small number of specialist singers, the ensemble aims to re-create the sound Bach intended.

With the Bach and Brews project, Olson finds himself examining how classical music fit with the baroque period’s coffeehouse scene. Scholarly research suggests these performances were extremely informal. One 18th-century engraving depicts a card game, conversations and billiards unfolding during a coffeehouse concert.

“I wanted to investigate the intent behind Bach’s secular music — his concertos, sonatas, vocal pieces,” Olson said, “and whether it was transferable to 21st-century audiences.”

Good drink, good music

Chatting over coffee last week, Olson remembered the response to his inaugural Bach and Brews concerts in summer 2017. “So many people asked, ‘Who came up with this idea?’ ” he said. “And it was Bach, in my opinion.”

One of the works Olson performed last summer was Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” among the composer’s best-known casual works. The cantata shows Bach in unusually mischievous light, praising the new fad for ingesting caffeine, with a tenor soloist who begins by singing “Calm down, and stop chattering” to the audience.

Forming the centerpiece of this year’s program, Bach’s comic “Peasant Cantata” was tailor-made for Café Zimmermann — and for the modern taproom, it seems.

“It’s a musical comedy about two peasant workers being at a party with good beer,” Olson said. “But they’re hoping to leave the party and go to the local pub, where they can be less reserved. There are drinking songs and folk dance tunes in the cantata, which Leipzig people would have known and loved at the time.”

Rounding out the 2018 Bach and Brews program is a clutch of drinking songs by English baroque composer Henry Purcell, a habitué of London’s convivial, often bawdy inns and hostelries. These carousing tunes are sure to resonate with listeners clutching growlers and clinking beer glasses.

Yes, Olson concedes, there’s a novelty factor in bringing Bach to the beer hall. But he contends there are solid artistic motivations behind the series. “I think it shows a really important, different side of Bach,” Olson said. “A humor and a wit.”

He also thinks the series illuminates an underappreciated aspect of Bach’s creative output. “It shows a composer with a genuine interest in music as social and entertainment value,” he said.


Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.