Beethoven’s Coffee

Along with being one of the great musical geniuses of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven is remembered for a variety of personal peculiarities – his wild hair, his explosive temper, his chaotic living arrangements (it is said that he changed residences between seventy and eighty times during the thirty-five years he lived in Vienna). His eating habits were distinctive as well. He loved salami as well as macaroni and cheese (parmesan was his cheese of choice). Every Thursday, he was served a very particular bread soup. As composer-conductor Ignaz Seyfried describes it, “Together with [the soup], ten sizable eggs had to be presented to him on a plate. Before they were stirred into the soup, he first separated and tested them by holding them against the light, then decapitated them with his own hand and anxiously sniffed them to see whether they were fresh.”

Beethoven also sometimes enjoyed cooking for guests. Here’s Seyfried again: “After waiting patiently for an hour and a half, while the turbulent demands of their stomachs were with increasing difficulty assuaged by cordial dialogue, the dinner was finally served. The soup recalled those charitable leavings distributed to beggars in the taverns; the beef was but half-done and calculated to gratify only an ostrich; the vegetables floated in a mixture of water and grease; and the roast seemed to have been smoked in the chimney … [his guests] found it barely possible to choke down a few morsels.”

In terms of his diet, however, Beethoven was remarkably fastidious about one thing – his coffee. His biographer and friend Anton Schindler once remarked, “coffee seems to have been the one indispensable item in his diet.” He always prepared his coffee himself, starting every day by counting out exactly sixty coffee beans and grinding them. Hot water would then be poured through the ground coffee via what has been described as a “glass contraption.” It is said that Beethoven’s sixty beans is about ten fewer than what would be used for a modern cup of coffee. Due to modern processing, though, the caffeine content in Beethoven’s coffee was likely far greater than that which we would enjoy today.

Beethoven wasn’t the only historical celebrity who had coffee idiosyncrasies. Remaining in the musical world for a moment, Johann Sebastian Bach was another famous coffee fan. He even went so far as to write a Coffee Cantata (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211), in which a father demands that his daughter give up her coffee addiction so that she can find a suitable husband. She ultimately decides to marry only when she has found someone who loves coffee as much as she, and the cantata ends with an ode to the delight women take in the drink.

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”
(from Bach’s Coffee Cantata)

Theodore Roosevelt is said to have drunk a gallon of coffee in the average day. In 1907, he apparently also coined Maxwell House’s motto “Good To The Last Drop.” Mathematician Paul Erdös, who alternated between espresso shots and caffeine tablets, once said that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Honoré de Balzac supposedly drank fifty cups of coffee a day, starting at the same time he began his day’s writing, at approximately 1:00 a.m. Voltaire also drank between forty and fifty cups per day. He liked his coffee mixed with chocolate, and paid bonuses to his servants if they managed to secure particularly good coffee beans.

The award for the sweetest brew goes to philosopher and author Søren Kierkegaard. According to his biographer Joakim Garff, “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” He would then swallow the concoction in one gulp.

Sources:
“Beethoven’s Caffeine Addiction” (classical-music.com)
“Beethoven’s Kitchen” (The Daily Beethoven)
“Top 11 Famous Coffee Drinkers from the History Books” (Coffee Makers USA)
“Coffee: From Balzac to Beethoven, it has fueled artistic endeavor for centuries” (slate.com)

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Sunday Salon 11-25-18

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 9:30 Sunday morning (I slept in), at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week I finished two books, Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe and John David Anderson’s delightful Granted. I’m now at that great moment where I get to choose my next book – but haven’t yet!

Viewing: With the end of FilmStruck in just a few days, I’ve been engaging in a bit of a marathon of film watching, more or less a double-feature every day. I’ve completed watching the early Ingrid Bergman films included in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years, seen a bunch of Japanese films from the 1950s through 1970s (perhaps my favorite segment of film history), and even made room for classics like last night’s viewing of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, with the unbeatable combination of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. I’ll miss FilmStruck very much, but also look forward to the new Criterion Channel on its way in a few months.

Listening: Not a lot of music in my life this week, although I’ve been enjoying Recurrence, featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason playing works by contemporary Icelandic composers.

Blogging: The main accomplishment this week was a look at Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King, an excellent book that enhanced my already-considerable appreciation of Monet’s late paintings. All of that Monet has inspired me to do another blog post on the connections between Monet’s work and Japanese art and gardens. Coming soon to a blog near you…

Pondering: I will soon be taking off for a few days in San Francisco, during which I will be taking in several art exhibitions, including two I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at SFMOMA, and Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey at the de Young Museum. By the way, I will be Tweeting throughout my trip, so I invite you to follow me on Twitter for all the fun.

And finally: This Tom Gauld cartoon says it all…

Sunday Salon 11-18-18

Sunday Salon badge squareAs this is my first blog post in quite a while, I will resist the temptation to detail my activities over the last year-and-a-half, and just talk a little about the last week or two (and the future!)

Time and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: In an attempt to find motivation, feed my creativity, and address my ever-faltering self-esteem, I’ve been spending a lot of time with self-help books recently. The one I’d like to call special attention to is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, perhaps (along with Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist) the best book on creativity that I’ve ever come across. Tharp is direct, detailed, revealing of her own pretty astonishing creative life, and full of practical suggestions. I’m also currently in the middle of Michael Pye’s very entertaining and informative The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, and have been eyeing hungrily my as-yet-untouched copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book Killing Commendatore.

Viewing: The imminent demise of the invaluable FilmStruck service – apparently to be replaced in a few months by the new Criterion Channel announced a couple of days ago – has led me, and many others, to try to go through our queues of movies before FilmStruck disappears on November 29. My focus has been on two areas: expanding my knowledge of the works of Japanese directors like Kon Ichikawa and Masahiro Shinoda, and becoming acquainted with the films Ingrid Bergman made in the early, Swedish part of her career (many featured in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years). I’ll save for another time the overwhelming experience of last night’s viewing, in its beautiful new Criterion Blu-Ray edition, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s magisterial Andrei Rublev.

Listening: Over late October and early November, I spent a couple of weeks writing program notes for a chamber music festival. It was such an intensive and awful experience – 63 compositions and 16,000 or so words written (edited down to 10,000 for space) over fourteen days! – that I came out of it with a genuine, and I suspect temporary, aversion to classical music. So I’ve been checking out lots of other fun stuff: Thai and other southeast Asian pop and folk music, my old favorite Stereolab, Bollywood soundtracks, and more (see below for another example). A lot of my listening, too, I have to admit, has been to my own music, as I’ve recovered my music-writing groove and am busily assembling bits of what will eventually be a long piece that I trust is going to be great!

Blogging: As I mentioned above, this is my first blog post in a year and a half, but I’m pretty sure not my last. I’ve been accumulating some content which will be turning up here soon, as well as developing a new project about which I’m going to remain silent for the moment. More news soon! By the way, my Twitter feed is now much more active than before, so I encourage you to follow me there.

Pondering: I left my previous job, a very demanding and time-consuming one, about three months ago. As with the last time I left that organization, it has been a difficult transition, especially on a personal level. I had always guessed that most of my friendships within that workplace, even some of the close ones, were not actually friendships but rather relationships of convenience, existing simply because of my title and possible utility to people. It’s not really unusual or surprising, nor am I really complaining about or condemning those people. But it has admittedly been painful to see my social circle diminished by something like 95%. However, I’m also extremely grateful for the people that have stuck with me and stayed in contact! And my social horizons are growing, gradually…

And finally: I’m pleased to share some music by a recent, very pleasant discovery, Khruangbin. This Houston-based band brings together a diverse group of influences, from Thai pop music to progressive rock to surf-rock instrumentals to film scores and more, via the rock-solid grooves of drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, the hypnotic and melodic bass playing of Laura Lee, and the virtuoso guitar of Mark Speer. When I found out that (1) Laura Lee came up with the name Khruangbin, Thai for “flying engine” or “airplane,” because she’d been studying the Thai language at the time and liked the word, and (2) they have a website, AirKhruang, where they put together Spotify playlists of cool and obscure music from around the world, I knew this was a band I would like. Their NPR Music Tiny Desk concert features three songs: “Maria También” is a great introduction to their musical world, the bass line of “August 10” has been stuck in my head for weeks, and the closer, “White Gloves,” pretty much makes me cry every time. I absolutely love this stuff, and hope you will too…

Kassiani

When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.

kassiani-iconBut she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.

Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”


Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.

Sunday Salon 2-12-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: Along with continuing in the novel Headlong by Michael Frayn, which I should finish in the next day or two, I read one self-help book this week, Susan J. Elliott’s Getting Past Your Breakup, which I indeed hope will prove to be self-helpful.

Viewing: My coolness toward film watching continued this week, as I only watched a couple of documentaries: InnSaei, a somewhat muddled exploration of intuition and mindfulness, and 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama. It’s never a bad idea to spend some time listening to the Dalai Lama.

Listening: It has once again been a listening week dedicated to the music I needed to write about for my program note projects. This time, it was the contents of the concluding concerts of the Reno Chamber Orchestra’s current season: Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! perfido and Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.

Blogging: My blogging goals seem to have settled into the idea of doing two extended pieces per week, along with a Wordless Wednesday and a Sunday Salon. I usually feel fairly good if I can manage that much. And this week, I succeeded, producing:

* An article I had meant to write for a long time, Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
* My impressions of Frank Stella – A Retrospective, an exhibition currently at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

Pondering: This has been another of those weeks where pondering, thinking, anticipating, remembering, dreaming … they’ve all turned out to be more harmful than helpful. Living in the present moment, which is all we’ve got after all, without judging and evaluating and comparing seems to be a more beneficial way to go.

And finally: Returning to the theme of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the painting has been enormously influential. One never knows where it will turn up…
nighthawks-star-trek
nighthawks-simpsons
nighthawks-santa
nighthawks-csi
nighthawks-star-wars

Sunday Salon 2-5-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 8:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: While I didn’t complete any books this week, I did start a new novel, Headlong by Michael Frayn, which details a plot to secure a long-lost and extremely valuable painting by Pieter Bruegel from an unknowing couple. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the comedic tone and the amount of historical and Bruegel scholarship included in Headlong has surprised and delighted me.

Viewing: As I’ve mentioned before here, I’ve been enduring a cold spell with regards to film viewing. For some reason, the time and attention required has seemed more than I could manage. I’ve tried to counteract that by choosing to watch a film that I already knew I loved. I wanted to watch something with poetry and wonder and heart, with vivid characters and setting, something that reminded me why films are made in the first place. Pondering this for a moment, what came pretty quickly to my mind was Jean Renoir’s The River. I watched it last night, and was not disappointed. It may not get me back on track with film, but The River is certainly a beautiful work of art.

Listening: Aside from Mike Oldfield’s new album Return to Ommadawn, which I’ve been enjoying greatly, my music listening has unfortunately followed the same path as my film viewing. Fortunately, I am “forced” to listen to music for the sake of the program notes I write. But a renaissance of interest is needed here as well.

Blogging: Unlike the previous week, when I did basically nothing on the blogging front, the week just past was remarkably productive. My posts included:

* a little free fantasy on the nature of consciousness, to be as pretentious about it as possible, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf
* a beautiful quotation from Pirandello
* an old woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, The Hunter’s Funeral, that is said to have provided inspiration for the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (about which I recently wrote a program note)
* my impressions of the recent volume of conversations on music between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

On top of that, I’ve also just about completed a review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective, which I saw recently and is currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This should appear at the blog in the next day or two.

Pondering: It’s an age-old question, but how could I have been so unmotivated to write two weeks ago, and yet so remarkably productive this past week? Although I did write some in that down week, the process consistently felt like trudging through mud. This past week, everything flowed easily, and what I wrote needed little revision. Which is it going to be in the coming week?

And finally: By the brilliant Tom Gauld, author of You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack
cultural-teddy-bear-by-tom-gauld