If you think coffee is simply something to perk us up in the morning think again. It has inspired some great artists to new heights of creativity
A link between coffee and the arts? Surely not. Coffee is for doctors and train drivers and City brokers who need to keep going in possession of their faculties. Coffee is for students, for friends meeting up, for breakfast, for sobering up after a night to remember.
There are some mentions of coffee in literature, of course. In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss there was a scene on the boat where Maggie and Stephen “drank their cup of coffee together and walked about the deck”. Not very interesting
And in Jane Austen’s Emma does Miss Bates drink coffee? Of course not: “No coffee, I thank you, for me – never take coffee – a little tea if you please.”
Not quite the stuff that great literature is made of, but it’s not just about writing. Some Thai artists use coffee as paint – and it took artist Pornchai Lerthammasiri six years to master the right texture of coffee and water. Then there’s Bach’s Coffee Cantata…
In fact, great artists, writers and composers may have been inspired by the beverage in the coffee houses of Paris, Vienna or Leipzig. Take Café Procope in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, which claims to be the oldest restaurant to have been in continuous operation in the city. It attracted all manner of men of letters – Rousseau, Robespierre, Alfred de Musset, George Sand and, of course, Voltaire who, it is claimed, drank at least 40 cups of coffee a day, mixing it with chocolate.
In Vienna, writers used cafés to meet and exchange ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries and even composed their literature at the tables, consuming vast amounts of coffee as they wrote. Among those who became known as “the coffee house poets” were Arthur Schnitzler, Friedrich Torberg and Peter Altenberg, who had his mail delivered to the Café Central.
But it has to be Johann Sebastian Bach’s decision to write a mini opera on the subject that is the ultimate artistic tribute to coffee. Bach, director of music for the principal Lutheran churches in Leipzig, was also the director of the Collegium Musicum, a society of student musicians who performed weekly at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse.
Now that must elevate coffee above the humble tea, beer or vin de table. They cannot claim such an impact on Europe’s artists, writers and musicians. Or can they?