Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Zimmermann's Cafe

If you crave a Starbucks latte in the morning, you would have felt at home in Leipzig in the late 1600s and early 1700s, surrounded by hordes of caffeinated Germans at Gottfried Zimmermann's coffee house.

Here is a description from the liner notes of a CD by the Baroque ensemble Cafe Zimmermann, which takes its name from this renowned center of Leipzig society:

"It was a meeting place for the town's burghers, and also frequented by many students and tradesmen. From 1723 onwards it was also the home of the 'collegium musicum' founded by Telemann in 1702, a part-time orchestra made up of young musicians, whose ranks were sometimes swelled by famous instrumentalists and singers passing through Leipzig. The ensemble could number up to forty performers. It is difficult for us to imagine what an upheaval this type of practice represented. The collegium musicam did not perform at court, nor in church; other musical institutions, made up of the same musicians, looked after these places. It played in a coffee house, accessible to all Herr Zimmermann's customers, male or female.

Johann Sebastian Bach became director of the collegium musicum at Zimmermann's in March 1729. This activity came on top of all those he already assumed in Leipzig, where he had taken up the duties of Kantor of the Thomaskirche in 1723."

Bach was 44 years old in 1729. His two oldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel, already splendid musicians in their own right, were 19 and 15. The Bach family's standard of musicianship and dazzling improvisation invigorated the collegium musicum and soon attracted an enthusiastic following. Celebrated players came from all over Germany to take part in collegium musicum concerts.

The ideal of Zimmermann's coffee house as a hub of popular culture has enormous appeal to me. No disrespect to Versailles, the beach at Honolulu, or San Diego's Balboa Park; but I'd rather be in Zimmermann's coffee house in 1729 drinking a cup of coffee and listening to energetic young instrumentalists under the direction of the great Johann Sebastian Bach.