Monday, June 18, 2012

Tea, Coffee, and Music in England

As I was listening to Steven Johnson's "Is the 'Eureka' Moment a Myth" segment on a TED talk today, I heard him make a connection between the first coffee and tea houses in England and the Enlightenment. He mentioned that because the water was lousy, most people drank beer and wine during the day, and spirits during the evening. This implies that the whole British population was in a state of inebriation until the prospect of drinking a stimulant like coffee or tea came into play.

[I thought of the word "teetotaler," which seems to have first been used in the 19th century, and seems also to have a somewhat blurry etymology. Perhaps the expression also comes from the idea that you could drink tea, wine, beer, and spirits, or you could drink just tea. A total tea drinker. But this is neither here or there.]

What caught my fancy was the idea that a lot of English music from before the mid 17th century (and everywhere else where the water was unsafe to drink, for that matter), could have written in the state of light inebriation. Consider the difference between music of a beer-drinking culture (Germany) and the wine-drinking cultures of Italy and France. Consider the languid English music of John Dowland and the tantalizing and intoxicating music of Holborne.

Then consider the clear-headed wisdom of the East, where people had been drinking tea for dynasties.

The first coffee house opened in England in 1652. Twelve years later there were more than 3,000 coffee houses in England, and coffee and tea houses were opening all over continental Europe. The smart people of the day (particularly those who pioneered enlightenment thought) hung out in coffee houses, and stimulated their discussions with what they were drinking.

These were the days in England of Henry Purcell, a prolific composer who might have been in a position (historically) to write hilarious songs about the culture of drinking alcohol because he could look at life with the clear mind someone who had the option of drinking a cup of tea once in a while.

[At this point you might want to exit this post and go off and listen to more of Purcell's works. I'm going off to make a nice pot of tea, and maybe I'll get down to doing some actual work.]


Anonymous said...

Music which is "tantalizing" and "intoxicating...." Oh yes, and this is my problem with some much avant garde music in the classical vein today. It is overly non-tantalizing and under-intoxicating. Thanks for the Purcell, Holborne, Deller and all. Do they not remain so very contemporary in their own vibrant ways?

Elaine Fine said...

I think that great music, like great love, great literature, and great friendship, is timeless. Much of the 21st-century music that has achieved high visibility and acclaim has achieved it through extra-musical means (marketing and media), and much of the 20th century "avant-garde" music (which is now dated and is very much a child of its time) achieved its high acclaim by being, in some way, ground-breaking.

Dowland, Holborne, and Purcell weren't trying to break any ground. They were writing music for people so that they could entertain themselves and their friends by singing and playing together. There are still people who write music with that purpose in mind, but they are more difficult to find, and they don't form enough of a "market" to be considered viable in today's musical "economy."

Tea in England said...

I think we should attribute *all* post-1652 beautiful music to TEA. :-)