Vices are generally thought of as habits or behaviors that are, at best, unacceptable, and at their worst… immoral. Yet there are those vices that have become so commonplace that we’ve ceased to recognize them as such, depending on the culture you live in.
Take, for example, smoking. Half a century ago it wasn’t at all unusual for Americans to smoke everywhere—in and out of doors, on airplanes, at the dinner table, etc… Today, our culture has changed due primarily to our understanding of its effects on our health, thus, we no longer see the kind of smoking that was once very common.
Yet it seems that the history of smoking and the presence of tobacco in the West go back a few centuries. Apparently, men and women have enjoyed smoking as long as there’s been something to smoke.
It’s even been celebrated in song.
Coffee first arrived in Europe via Italy. More specifically, it came to Venice from the Middle East and quickly spread throughout Europe. It got a huge promotional boost in 1600 when the Pope decreed coffee to be a drink for Christians. By the end of the 17th Century, coffee houses had spread like wild fire, including in places such as Leipzig, Germany where they were also popular venues for musical performance.
It was this very setting that inspired Johann Sebastian Bach to compose his satirical cantata “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,” better known as the “Coffee Cantata,” which tells of a daughter’s addiction to coffee and of her father’s frustration in trying to get her to stop drinking it. In the end, he doesn’t really succeed in spite of his best efforts.
Gambling is another one of those vices that is, depending on who you talk to, variously seen as a recreation, an outright sin, or a distraction falling somewhere in between the two.
Sometimes it’s also the basis for an entire opera.
Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte begins with a wager between a Don Alfonso and a couple guys, Ferrando and Guglielmo. The essence of the bet claims that the two guys’ respective girlfriends cannot remain faithful to them (little do they know what’s in store). As one can imagine, the rest of the opera unfolds with many twists and a subplots. Ironically, this first scene takes a place in a coffee house.
Wine and spirits have been the libations of choice for many a reveler, and drinking to excess, par for the course. Countless numbers of songs and dramas have marked such excess from the middle ages through the present day.
One great example is the drunken poet found at the beginning of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen, whose anonymous libretto was adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the scene, our poor poet suffers a potential side effect from excessive drinking—ridicule (and by fairies, no less). Added after the fact, the scene first debuted in 1683, a year after the opera’s premiere.
Our new release this week features Early Music New York on the Ex Cathedra label. Directed by Frederick Renz, the mostly vocal ensemble is featured in a program of Italian madrigals entitled Music of Renaissance Love. Composers represented include Orazio Vecchi, Andrea Gabrieli, Carlo Gesualdo, and many others.
Here are two videos of music heard on the program:
Smoking (Aria “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,” J.S. Bach):
Gambling (Terzetto “La mia Dorabella,” W.A. Mozart):
The music heard on this episode was performed by Early Music New York, Gothic Voices, Hesperion XXI, Paul Hillier, Karina Gauvin, Luc Beausejour, Sergei Istomin, Bach Collegium Japan, Concerto Cologne, Rene Jacobs, and Les Arts Florissants.