Last week I researched tea, so it seems only right that this week I look at coffee, which is a drink prepared from roasted coffee beans. Darkly coloured, bitter, and slightly acidic, coffee has a stimulating effect on us humans, primarily due to its caffeine content and it has the highest sales in the world market for hot drinks. Though coffee is now a global commodity, it has a long history, dating back through centuries of oral tradition. Coffee plants grew wild in Yemen and were widely used by nomadic tribes for thousands of years and Sufi monasteries there employed coffee as an aid to concentration during prayers, but roasting the seeds was not a way to serve coffee until the 1400s. In fact, during the cultivation brewed coffee was reserved exclusively for the priesthood and the medical profession and doctors would use the brew for patients who were experiencing a need for better digestion, also priests used it to stay alert during their long nights of studying for the church. Evidence of knowledge of the coffee tree and coffee drinking first appeared in the late 15th century, where a Sufi Imam is known to have imported goods from Ethiopia to Yemen. Coffee was also exported out of Ethiopia to Yemen by Somali merchants. Apparently Sufis in Yemen used the beverage as an aid to concentration and as a kind of spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God, also using it to keep themselves alert during their night-time devotions. By 1414, the plant was known in Mecca and in the early 1500s was spreading to Egypt and North Africa from the Yemeni port of Mocha. Associated with Sufism, many coffee houses grew up in Cairo and these also opened in Syria, especially in the cosmopolitan city of Aleppo (then in Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. But in 1511, it was forbidden for its stimulating effect by conservative, orthodox Imams at a theological court in Mecca. However, these bans were to be overturned in 1524 by an order of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman I, with the Grand Mufti issuing a fatwa (a legal ruling on a point of Islamic law) allowing the consumption of coffee. In Cairo a similar ban was instituted in 1532, and the coffee houses and warehouses containing coffee beans were sacked. It then reached the rest of the Middle East and from there coffee drinking spread to Italy, and to the rest of Europe, with coffee plants transported by the Dutch to the East Indies and to the Americas. Coffee was banned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church some time before the eighteenth century, but in the second half of the nineteenth century attitudes softened towards its drinking and consumption spread rapidly. This was largely due to the Emperor, who himself drank it, and to priests and religious seniors who did much to dispel the belief of the clergy that it was a Muslim drink. Meanwhile in Islam, early practitioners of Islamic medicine and science fought against the notion that the effect of coffee was like that of hashish or alcohol, and instead argued the benefits of the drink, which would stimulate the mind whilst protecting against the allure of alcohol and hashish. Coffee houses in Mecca, Yemen, and Cairo began to explode in popularity, and they become centres of public life within the sprawling cities of the Islamic Empire. The coffee houses sometimes acted like regular meeting places which were centres of Islamic life, arts, and thinking, so it was one of the keys to the economy around the Red Sea. Those of Islam were the primary consumers, ingraining it into the culture of the people within the Muslim faith and from Islam, the rest of the world would go on to experience something that holds influence over the world today.

The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis (1857).

Coffee was first introduced to Europe when the Turks invaded Hungary in 1526. Later in the sixteenth century, coffee was introduced on the island of Malta through slavery. Turkish Muslim slaves had been imprisoned by the Knights of St John in 1565, the year of the Great Siege of Malta, and they used them to make their traditional beverage. A professor of theology and oriental languages in Rome mentioned in one of his works about “Turks, most skilful makers of this concoction”. Also a German traveller wrote in 1663 “the ability and industriousness with which the Turkish prisoners earn some money, especially by preparing coffee, a powder resembling snuff tobacco, with water and sugar.” Coffee was a popular beverage in Maltese high society and many coffee shops opened. The vibrant trade between the Republic of Venice and the people of North Africa, Egypt, and the East brought a large variety of African goods, including coffee, to this leading European port. Venetian merchants introduced coffee-drinking to the wealthy in Venice, charging them heavily for the beverage and in this way, coffee was introduced to the mainland Europe. The first route of travel for coffee was through the massive, sprawling Ottoman Empire that enabled the transportation of goods such as coffee to make their way into Europe and the second route of travel was from the port of Mocha in Yemen, where the East India Trading Co. bought coffee in masses and transported it back to mainland Europe. Coffee became a crucial part of the culture in most of Europe, with kings, queens and the general public all becoming extensively enthralled with the product.

Pope Clement VIII, who popularised coffee in Europe among Christians.

Soon coffee shops started opening and became the drink of the intellectuals, of social gatherings, even of lovers as plates of chocolate and coffee were considered a romantic gift. By 1763 Venice alone accounted for more than two hundred shops, and the health benefits of this miraculous drink were celebrated by many. Some representatives of the Catholic Church opposed coffee at its first introduction in Italy, believing it to be the ‘Devil’s drink’, but Pope Clement VIII, after trying the aromatic drink himself, gave it his blessing, thus boosting further its commercial success and diffusion. Upon tasting coffee, the Pope declared: “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptising it.” Some say that he later on baptised coffee beans because it appeared better for the people than alcoholic beverages. The race among Europeans to obtain live coffee trees or beans was eventually won by the Dutch in 1616 when a Dutch merchant obtained some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, Yemen. He took them back to Amsterdam and found a home for them in the Botanical Gardens, where they began to thrive. This apparently minor event received little publicity, but was to have a major impact on the history of coffee. The beans adjusted well to conditions in the greenhouses there and produced numerous healthy bushes. In 1658 the Dutch first used them to begin coffee cultivation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and later in southern India. They abandoned this cultivation to focus on their Javanese plantations in order to avoid lowering the price by oversupply. Within a few years the Dutch colonies, Java in Asia and Suriname in the Americas, had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe.

A 1652 handbill advertising coffee for sale in St. Michael’s Alley, London.

The first coffee house in England was opened in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, London. The proprietor was Pasqua Rosée, the servant of Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods. Edwards imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment. Coffee was also brought in through the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century. Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, is still in existence today. By 1675, there were more than three thousand coffee houses throughout England and during this enlightenment, these early English coffee houses became gathering places used for deep religious and political discussions among the populace, since it was a rare opportunity for sober discussion. This practice became so common, and potentially subversive, so much so that in the 1670s King Charles II made an attempt to crush coffee houses. The banning of women from coffee houses was not universal, for example women frequented them in Germany, but it appears to have been commonplace elsewhere in Europe, including in England. A 1661 item entitled “A character of coffee and coffee-houses”, written by one ‘M.P.’ lists some of these perceived benefits as follows:“’Tis extolled for drying up the Crudities of the Stomack, and for expelling Fumes out of the Head. Excellent Berry! which can cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm, and expel Giddinesse out of his Head’. Except this new commodity proved controversial among some subjects. For instance, the anonymous 1674 “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” declared “the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE has Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age”. Meanwhile in France, one writer praised the Muslim association with various drinks, saying “We are indebted to these great Arab physicians for introducing coffee to the modern world through their writings, as well as sugar, tea, and chocolate.” In 1669 an ambassador from Sultan Mehmed IV arrived in Paris with his entourage bringing with him a large quantity of coffee beans. Not only did they provide their French and European guests with coffee to drink, but they also donated some beans to the royal court.

Monsooned Malabar arabica, compared with green Yirgachefe beans from Ethiopia.

Coffee came to India well before the East India company, through an Indian Sufi saint named ‘Baba Budan’. The first record of coffee growing in India is following the introduction of coffee beans from Yemen by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur, Karnataka, in 1670. Since then coffee plantations have become established in the region, extending south to Kodagu. Coffee production in India is dominated in the hill tracts of South Indian states, with the state of Karnataka accounting for 53%, followed by Kerala at 28% and Tamil Nadu at 11% of production of 8,200 Tonnes. Indian coffee is said to be the finest coffee grown in the shade rather than direct sunlight anywhere in the world. There are approximately 250,000 coffee growers in India, 98% of them are small growers. As of 2009, the production of coffee in India was only 4.5% of the total production in the world and almost 80% of the country’s coffee production is exported. Of that which is exported, 70% is bound for Germany, the Russian federation, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia, United States, Japan, Greece, Netherlands and France, whilst Italy accounts for 29% of the exports, with most of the export shipped through the Suez Canal. So coffee is grown in three regions of India with Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu forming the traditional coffee growing region of South India, followed by the new areas developed in the non-traditional areas of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa in the eastern coast of the country and with a third region comprising the states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh of Northeastern India, popularly known as ‘Seven Sister States of India’. Because of this, Indian coffee which is grown mostly in southern India under monsoon rainfall conditions, is naturally termed as ‘Indian monsooned coffee’. Its flavour is seen by some as the best Indian coffee, reaching the flavour characteristics of Pacific coffees, but at its worst it is simply bland and uninspiring. The two well-known species of coffee grown are the Arabica and Robusta. The first variety that was introduced in the Baba Budan Giri hill ranges of Karnataka in the seventeenth century was marketed over the years under the brand names of Kent and S.795. Coffee is served in a distinctive “drip-style filter coffee“ across Southern India.

Café Zimmermann, Leipzig (engraving by Johann Georg Schreiber, 1732).

In Germany, coffee houses were first established in North Sea ports from about 1673. Initially, this new beverage was written in the English form ‘coffee’, but during the 1700s the Germans gradually adopted the French word café, then slowly changed the spelling to Kaffee, which is the present word. In the eighteenth century the popularity of coffee gradually spread around the German lands and was taken up by the ruling classes. Coffee was served at the court of the Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg as early as 1675, but Berlin’s first public coffee house did not open until 1721. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig from 1723 to 1750, conducted a musical ensemble at the local Café Zimmermann, and sometime between 1732 and 1735 he composed the secular Coffee Cantata ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht’ in which a young woman, Lieschen, pleads with her disapproving father to accept her devotion to drinking coffee, then a newfangled fashion. The libretto includes such lines as:

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Coffee, Coffee muss ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!

Which translates to:
Oh! How sweet coffee does taste,
Better than a thousand kisses,
Milder than muscat wine.
Coffee, coffee, I’ve got to have it,
And if someone wants to perk me up,
Oh, just give me a cup of coffee!

A coffee house of culture between Vienna and Trieste.

Meanwhile, the first coffee house in Austria opened in Vienna in 1683 after the Battle of Vienna by using supplies from the spoils obtained after defeating the Turks. A Polish military officer of Ukrainian descent who received the coffee beans opened a coffee house and helped popularise the custom of adding sugar and milk to the coffee. ‘Melange’ is the typical Viennese coffee, which comes mixed with hot foamed milk, and is usually served with a glass of water. A very special Viennese coffee house culture developed in Vienna in the 19th century and then spread throughout Central Europe. Scientists, artists, intellectuals, diplomats and financiers met in this special microcosm of the Viennese coffee houses. World-famous personalities such as Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce and Egon Schiele were inspired in the Viennese coffee house. This special multicultural atmosphere and culture was largely destroyed by the later National Socialism and Communism and only survived in individual places such as Vienna or Trieste. In this diverse coffee house culture, different types of coffee preparation also developed. This is how the world-famous cappuccino from the Viennese Kapuziner coffee developed over the Italian-speaking parts of the northern Italian empire.

Over in the Americas, a French Naval officer brought coffee seedlings to Martinique in the Caribbean in 1720. Those sprouts flourished and 50 years later there were 18,680 coffee trees there, enabling the spread of coffee cultivation to Saint-Domingue (now part of Haiti) and other islands of the Caribbean. This French territory saw coffee cultivated starting in 1734, and by 1788 supplied half the world’s coffee. Also, after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, large numbers of Americans switched to drinking coffee during the American Revolution because drinking tea had become unpatriotic. Coffee had a major influence on the geography of Latin America. The French colonial plantations relied heavily on African slave labourers, however the dreadful conditions that the slaves worked in on coffee plantations were a factor in the soon-to-follow Haitian Revolution and the coffee industry never fully recovered there. Coffee also found its way to the Isle of Bourbon, now known as Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. The plant produced smaller beans and was deemed a different variety of arabica. The Santos coffee of Brazil and the Oaxaca coffee of Mexico are the progeny of that Bourbon tree. Then in 1727, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Brazilian army was commissioned by the Portuguese government (who ruled Brazil at the time) to steal coffee from the French, who had several colonised countries nearby growing coffee but had refused to share. So the King of Portugal sent this Lieutenant-Colonel to French Guiana to obtain coffee seeds to become a part of the coffee market. He initially had difficulty obtaining these seeds, but he captivated the French Governor’s wife, and she sent him enough seeds and shoots to commence the coffee industry of Brazil. Except cultivation did not gather momentum until independence in 1822, leading to the clearing of massive tracts of the Atlantic Forest, first from the vicinity of Rio and later São Paulo for coffee plantations. In 1893, the coffee from Brazil was introduced into Kenya and Tanzania (Tanganyika), not far from its place of origin in Ethiopia, 600 years prior, ending its transcontinental journey. In the twentieth century Latin American countries faced a possible economic collapse. Before World War II, Europe was consuming large amounts of coffee. Once the war started, Latin America lost 40% of its market and was on the verge of economic collapse. Coffee was and is a Latin American commodity and the United States saw this, so talked with the Latin American countries and as a result the producers agreed on an equitable division of the U.S. market. The U.S. government monitored this agreement. For the period that this plan was followed the value of coffee doubled, which greatly benefited coffee producers and the Latin American countries. Brazil became the largest producer of coffee in the world by 1852 and it has held that status ever since. It dominated world production, exporting more coffee than the rest of the world combined, from 1850 to 1950. The period since 1950 saw the widening of the playing field due to the emergence of several other major producers, notably Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and, most recently, Vietnam, which overtook Colombia and became the second-largest producer in 1999 and reached 15% market share by 2011. A recent change to the coffee market are lattes, frappuccinos and other sugary coffee drinks. This has caused coffee houses to be able to use cheaper coffee beans in their coffee but the cheaper coffee beans, called Robusta, contain more caffeine than expensive beans. This makes them more popular as well. The producers, however, receive less money for the production of cheaper beans than they do for the production of higher quality beans. Since the producers get paid less, they are receiving a smaller income, which in turn hurts the economy of Latin America.

There are several legendary accounts of the origin of the consumption of coffee. According to one, ancestors of today’s people in the Kingdom of Kaffa, an area located in what is now Ethiopia, were the first to recognise the energising effect of the coffee plant. But it is also said that in the ninth century, an Ethiopian goat-herder who, noticing the energising effects when his flock nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush, chewed on the fruit himself and his exhilaration prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into the fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed, causing other monks to come and investigate. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee! Since this story is not known to have appeared in writing before 1671, some 800 years after it was supposed to have taken place, it is highly likely to be apocryphal. There seem to be a few accounts of when coffee was discovered as a drink, one involving a thirteenth century Moroccan Sufi mystic who was travelling in Ethiopia. The legend goes that he observed birds of unusual vitality feeding on berries and, upon trying the berries, experienced the same vitality. Yet another attributes the discovery of coffee to a Sheikh’s disciple and according to the ancient chronicle, he was known for his ability to cure the sick through prayer so was once banished from Mecca to a desert cave. Starving, he chewed berries from nearby shrubbery, but found them to be too bitter. He tried roasting the beans to improve the flavour, but they became too hard. He then tried boiling them to soften the bean, which resulted in a fragrant brown liquid. After drinking the liquid, he was revived and survived for days. As stories of this ‘miracle drug’ reached Mecca, the man was asked to return and was eventually made a saint. Another origin of coffee was described in Homer’s Odyssey and at one point in his Epic, Helena, daughter of Zeus, mixes a drink in a bowl “which had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories”. It is also said that the Greek gods used coffee for medicinal and spiritual purposes while they lounged at Mount Olympus. Coffee also became associated with Muhammad’s birthday and various legends have ascribed coffee’s origins to Muhammad, who, it is said, brought it to man through the archangel Gabriel to replace the wine which Islam forbade! It fascinates me as to who comes up with these ideas…

This week…
Some films, especially comedies, have great lines. Here is a favourite of mine.
“My mind is aglow with whirling transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapour of invention” ~ Hedley Lamarr, ‘Blazing Saddles’.

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The History Of Tea

The history of tea spreads across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years, with the tea plant Camellia Sinensis native to the southern Himalayan region of north-east India & Burma, flourished in China, and was introduced into Indian subcontinent by the British who acquired this habit from the Dutch. The earliest tea drinking is thought to date back to China’s Shang dynasty, in which tea was consumed as a medicinal drink. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the third century AD in a medical text written by Chinese physician Hua Tuo, but it first became known to the Western world through Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the early sixteenth century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the seventeenth century and the British introduced commercial tea production to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.

Tea from Yunnan.

Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree in the flowering plant family ‘Theaceae’ and its leaves and leaf buds are used to produce the popular beverage of tea. Common names include tea plant, tea shrub and tea tree. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, dark tea and black tea are all harvested from one of two major varieties grown today, however Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation, with black tea being the most oxidised and green being the least. Kukicha (twig) tea is also harvested from Camellia sinensis, but uses twigs and stems rather than leaves. It seems that Camellia sinensis originated around the intersection of latitude 29°N and longitude 98°E, the point of confluence of the lands of South-west China, Tibet, North Burma, and North-east India. The plant was introduced to more than 52 countries from this centre of origin. There are some myths associated with tea, as in one popular Chinese legend the Emperor Shennong was drinking a bowl of just boiled water because of a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it. Some time around 2737 BC, a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the colour and taste. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavour and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote. A similar Chinese legend states that Shennong would chew the leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to counteract the poison. The earliest physical evidence known of tea comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han, indicating that tea was drunk by Emperors of the Han dynasty as early as the second century BC. China is therefore considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption, with possible records dating back to the tenth century BC. It should be noted however that the current word for tea in Chinese only came into use in the eighth century AD, there are uncertainties as to whether the older words used are the same as tea. The first record of cultivation of tea also dates it to the Han dynasty when tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain, near Chengdu. From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor. Even today its green and yellow teas are still sought after. Teas produced in this period were mainly tea bricks which were often used as currency, especially further from the centre of the empire where coins lost their value. In this period, tea leaves were steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake or brick forms. Then the production and preparation of all tea changed during the Song dynasty. The tea included many loose-leaf styles, to preserve the delicate character which was favoured by court society and it is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice of brewed tea. A powdered form of tea also emerged. Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea.

An illustration of the legend of monkeys harvesting tea.

The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-thirteenth century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stopped the oxidation process which turned the leaves dark and allowed tea to remain green. In the fifteenth century oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed. But Western taste preferred the fully oxidised black tea and the leaves were allowed to ferment further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, which yielded a different flavour as a result. Tea production in China was a laborious process, conducted in distant and often poorly accessible regions and this led to the rise of many stories and legends surrounding the harvesting process. For example, one story that has been told for many years is that of a village where monkeys would pick tea. According to this legend, the villagers stand below the monkeys and taunt them. The monkeys, in turn, become angry, and grab handfuls of tea leaves and throw them at the villagers. There are products sold today that claim to be harvested in this manner, however no reliable commentators have observed this first-hand, and most doubt that it happened at all. For many hundreds of years the commercially used tea tree has been, in shape, more of a bush than a tree. ‘Monkey picked tea’ is more likely a name of certain varieties than a description of how it was obtained. In 1391, the Hongwu emperor issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a ‘tribute’, and as a result, tea production shifted from cake tea to loose-leaf tea and processing techniques advanced, giving rise to the more energy efficient methods of pan-firing and sun-drying. The last group to adopt loose-leaf tea were the scholar officials, also known as literati who were government officials and prestigious scholars in Chinese society, forming a distinct social class and who were reluctant to abandon their refined culture of whisking tea until the invention of oolong tea. But by the end of the 16th century, loose-leaf tea had entirely replaced the earlier tradition of cake and powdered tea.

Japanese tea ceremony.

In China, during the Sui dynasty (581 AD to 618 AD), tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks and the use of it then spread. Tea later became a drink of the religious classes in Japan and it became a drink of the royal classes when the Emperor Saga encouraged the growth of tea plants. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan began. Then in 1191 a Zen priest named Eisai introduced tea seeds to Kyoto and some of the tea seeds were given to the priest Myoe Shonin, which became the basis for Uji tea. Green tea became a staple drink amongst cultured people in Japan, a brew for both gentry and the Buddhist priesthood alike. Production grew and tea became more and more accessible, though still a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes. The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced from China in the 15th century by Buddhists as a semi-religious social custom and the modern tea ceremony developed over several centuries by Zen Buddhist monks. Both the beverage and the ceremony surrounding it played a prominent role in feudal diplomacy. In 1738, Soen Nagatani developed Japanese sencha, literally ‘simmered tea’ which is an unfermented form of green tea. By the twentieth century, machine manufacturing of green tea was introduced and began replacing handmade tea. Later, tea was introduced by Buddhist monks to Korea, where the ‘Day Tea Rite’ was a common daytime ceremony, whereas the ‘Special Tea Rite’ was reserved for specific occasions.

A conical urn-shaped silver-plated samovar used for boiling water for tea in Russia and some Middle-Eastern countries.

The earliest record of tea in Western world is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveller, that after 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea. Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea taxes. In 1557, Portugal established a trading port in Macau and word of the Chinese drink “chá” spread quickly, but there is no mention of them bringing any samples home. In the early seventeenth century, a ship of the Dutch East India Company brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China. Tea was known in France by 1636 and it enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Paris around 1648. The history of tea in Russia can also be traced back to the same century. Tea was first offered by China as a gift to Czar Michael I in 1618. The Russian ambassador tried the drink but he did not care for it and rejected the offer, delaying tea’s Russian introduction by fifty years. By 1689, tea was regularly imported from China to Russia via a caravan of hundreds of camels travelling the year-long journey, making it a precious commodity at the time. Tea was appearing in German apothecaries by 1657 but never gained much esteem except in some coastal areas. Tea first appeared publicly in England during the 1650s, where it was introduced through coffee houses and from there it was introduced to British colonies in both America and elsewhere. Tea was first introduced to Europe by an Italian traveller, who in 1555 published ‘Voyages and Travels’, containing the first European reference to tea, which he calls “Chai Catai”. Meanwhile Portuguese priests and merchants in the sixteenth century made their first contact with tea in China, at which time it was termed “chá”. The first Portuguese ships reached China in 1516, and in 1560 Portuguese missionary Gaspar da Cruz published the first Portuguese account of Chinese tea, then in 1565 Portuguese missionary Louis Almeida published the first European account of tea in Japan.

A Tea Garden in Assam, India.

Commercial production of tea was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea and the British, using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese planting and cultivating techniques, launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Tea was originally only consumed by Anglicised Indians, it was not until the 1950s that tea grew widely popular in India through a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board. Prior to the British, the plant may have been used for medicinal purposes as some cite the Sanjeevani plant as the first recorded reference of tea use in India. However, scientific studies have shown that this plant is in fact a different plant and is not related to tea. Commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the arrival of the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production. The Chinese variety is used for Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kangra tea, whilst the Assam variety, clonal to the native to Assam, was used everywhere else. The British started commercial tea plantations in India and in Ceylon, only black tea was produced until recent decades mostly in India, except in Kangra (present-day Himachal Pradesh) which produced green tea for exporting to central Asia, Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.

Kangra, a tea-growing region in India, known for its green tea production.

In fact, India was the top producer of tea for nearly a century but was then displaced by China as the top tea producer in the 21st century. It also seems that Indian tea companies have acquired a number of iconic foreign tea enterprises including British brands Lipton, Tetley, Twinings and Typhoo. Most of the Indian tea garden owners have focused on exports to markets like Europe and Russia, whilst very few have focused on building their own brands such as Makaibari, Dharmsala Tea Company, and a few others. Even so, India is the largest consumer of tea worldwide but the consumption of tea in India remains a modest 750 grams per person annually. Recently consumption of green tea has seen a great upsurge across the cities, and regions such as Kangra, which were known for their green tea production historically, have seen a resurgence of their green teas in the domestic market. Other countries also produce tea, such as Iran, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Australia and Africa. Taiwan is famous for the making of oolong tea and green tea, as well as many western-styled teas. Bubble tea or ‘Zhen Zhu Nai Cha’ is black tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk and tapioca. Since the island was known to Westerners for many centuries as Formosa, short for the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, or ‘beautiful island’, tea grown in Taiwan is often identified by that name. The drinking of tea in the United States was largely influenced by the passage of the Tea Act and its subsequent protest during the American Revolution. Tea consumption sharply decreased in America during and after the Revolution, when many Americans switched from drinking tea to drinking coffee, considering tea drinking to be unpatriotic. It seems Canadians were big tea drinkers from the days of British colonisation until the Second World War, when they began drinking more coffee like their American neighbours to the south. During the 1990s, Canadians begun to purchase more speciality teas instead of coffee. In South America, the tea production in Brazil has strong roots because of the country’s origins in Portugal, the strong presence of Japanese immigrants, and because of the influences of Argentina’s culture. Brazil had a big tea production until the 1980s, but it has weakened in the past decades. The first record of tea in English came from a letter written in 1615 by Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, writing to a merchant in Macao requesting ‘the best sort of chaw’. But a traveller and merchant who came across tea in Fuji in 1637, wrote, “chaa – only water with a kind of herb boiled in it’. In 1657, Thomas Garway, a tobacconist and coffee-man was the first to sell tea in London at his house in Exchange Alley, charging between 16 and 50 shillings per pound. The same year, tea was listed as an item in the price list in a London coffee house and the first advertisement for tea appeared in 1658. In 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.” It is probable that early imports were smuggled via Amsterdam or through sailors arriving on eastern boats. The marriage of King Charles II in 1662 to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza brought the tea drinking habit to court. Official trade of tea began in 1664 with an import of only two pound two ounces for presentation to the king, which grew to 24 million pounds per year by 1801. Tea was traded in significant amounts by the 18th century, when tea was being sold by grocers and tea shops in London. By the 1720s black tea overtook green tea in popularity as the price dropped, and early on British drinkers began adding sugar and milk to tea, a practice that was not done in China. By the 1720s European maritime trade with China was dominated by exchange of silver for tea. As prices continued to drop, tea became increasingly popular and by 1750 had become the British national drink. A fungus reduced coffee production in Ceylon by 95% in the nineteenth century, thus cementing tea’s popularity. The escalation of tea importation and sales over the period 1690 to 1750 is mirrored closely by the increase in importation and sales of cane sugar, as the British were not drinking just tea but ‘sweet’ tea. As a result, two of Britain’s trading triangles converged, the sugar sourced from Britain’s trading triangle encompassing Britain, Africa and the West Indies and the tea from the triangle encompassing Britain, India and China. In China, the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793, saying “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened because of the social problems created by drug use and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium during 1838 and 1839. Tea had therefore become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire, and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the ‘First Opium War’ a series of military engagements fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty of China between 1839 and 1842. The immediate issue was the Chinese enforcement of their ban on the opium trade by seizing private opium stocks from merchants at Canton and threatening to impose the death penalty for future offenders. Despite the opium ban, the British government supported the merchants’ demand for compensation for seized goods, and insisted on the principles of free trade and equal diplomatic recognition with China. Opium was Britain’s single most profitable commodity trade of the 19th century. After months of tensions between the two nations, the British navy launched an expedition in June 1840 and by August 1842 had defeated the Chinese using modern and technologically superior ships and weapons. The British then imposed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to increase foreign trade, give compensation, and cede Hong Kong to the British. Consequently the opium trade continued in China. Twentieth century nationalists consider 1839 the start of a century of humiliation and many historians consider it the beginning of modern Chinese history. But, whilst waging war on China was one of Britain’s tactics, it also began to use India for growing tea. After tea plants were smuggled out of China, plantations were established in areas such as Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon. As an attempt to circumvent its dependence on Chinese tea, the East India Company sent a Scottish botanist to China to purchase and bring out of China tea plants, which were then taken to India, although it was the discovery of native varieties of tea plant in India which proved more important for the development of production there. Tea remained a very important item in Britain’s global trade, contributing in part to Britain’s global dominance by the end of the 18th century. To this day, tea is seen worldwide as a symbol of ‘Britishness’, but also, to some, as a symbol of good old British colonialism.

This week…
If you ever think mythology is boring…
Just remember that Cerberus, the hellhound and guard dog of the Underworld, comes from the root Indo-European word Ḱerberos, which evolved into the Greek word Kerberos, which got changed to Cerberus when it went from Greek to Latin. Ḱerberos means ‘spotted’.
So Hades, Lord of the dead, literally named his pet dog ‘Spot’.

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The word ‘Chakra’, in Indian thought, refers to each of seven centres of spiritual power in the human body and which are various focal points used in a variety of ancient meditation practices, collectively denominated as Tantra, or the esoteric or inner traditions of Hinduism and the concept of the chakra arose in Hinduism’s early traditions. Beliefs differ between the Indian religions, with many Buddhist texts consistently mentioning five chakras, whilst Hindu sources reference six or seven. Early Sanskrit texts speak of them both as meditative visualisations combining flowers and mantras and as physical entities in the body and within Kundalini yoga, the techniques of breathing exercises, visualisations, mudras, meaning a seal, mark or gesture, as well as mantras which are focused on manipulating the flow of subtle energy through chakras. The modern Western chakra system arose from multiple sources, starting in the 1880s and which introduced the seven rainbow colours for the chakras. Psychological and other attributes, and a wide range of supposed correspondences with other systems such as alchemy, astrology, gemstones, homeopathy, Kabbalah and Tarot were added later. The word ‘chakra’ links to an ancestral Indo-European as well as Ancient Greek, Buddhist and Vedic texts meaning ‘wheel’ or ‘cycle’. The term ‘chakra’ appears to first emerge within the Hindu Vedas, though not precisely in the sense of psychic energy centres, rather as ‘chakravartin’ or the king who “turns the wheel of his empire” in all directions from a centre, representing his influence and power.

An illustration of a Saiva Nath chakra system from the Nath Charit, 1823. Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

The Chakras are part of esoteric ideas and concepts about physiology and psychic centres that emerged across Indian traditions. The belief held that human life simultaneously exists in two parallel dimensions, one physical body and other in a psychological, emotional mind, non-physical which is called the subtle body. This subtle body is energy, whilst the physical body is mass. The psyche or mind plane corresponds to and interacts with the body plane, and the belief holds that the body and the mind mutually affect each other and the subtle body consists of energy channels that are connected by nodes of psychic energy called chakra. The belief grew into extensive elaboration, with some suggesting 88,000 chakras throughout the subtle body. The number of major chakras varied between various traditions, but they typically ranged between four and seven. The important chakras are stated in Hindu and Buddhist texts to be arranged in a column along the spinal cord, from its base to the top of the head, connected by vertical channels. The tantric traditions sought to master them, awaken and energise them through various breathing exercises or with assistance of a teacher. These chakras were also symbolically mapped to specific human physiological capacity, with sounds, subtle elements, in some cases deities, colours and other motifs. Belief in the chakra system of Hinduism and Buddhism differs from the historic Chinese system of meridians in acupuncture, as unlike the latter, the chakra relates to subtle body, wherein it has a position but no definite nervous node or precise physical connection. Chakra and related beliefs have been important to the esoteric traditions, but they are not directly related to mainstream yoga. According to various scholars, the goals of classical yoga such as spiritual liberation, freedom and self-knowledge are attained entirely differently. Chakras have classical traditions in meditation and are often visualised in different ways, such as a lotus flower or a disc containing a particular deity. The classical eastern traditions, particularly those that developed in India during the first millennium AD primarily describe them in a ‘subtle body’ context as to them, they are in same dimension as of the psyche-mind reality that is invisible yet real. In them flow the ‘Prana’, meaning breath or life energy. The concept of this life energy varies between the texts, ranging from simple inhalation-exhalation to far more complex association with breath, mind, emotion and sexual energy. This essence is what vanishes when a person dies, leaving a simple body. Some of this concept states this subtle body is what withdraws within, when one sleeps. All of it is believed to be reachable and able to be awakened, to be important for the health of an individual’s body and mind, also how one relates to other people in one’s life. This subtle body network of chakras is, according to some later Indian theories and many modern speculations, closely associated with emotions. Certain traditions in Hinduism mention numerous numbers and arrangements of chakras, of which a classical system of six-plus-one, the last being the Sahasrara, is most prevalent. This seven-part system, central to the core texts of hatha yoga, is one among many systems found in Hindu tantric literature. Chakra methodology is extensively developed in the goddess tradition of Hinduism called Shaktism is an important concept along with yantras, mandalas and kundalini yoga in its practice. Chakra in Shakta tantrism means circle, an ‘energy centre’ within, as well as being a term for group rituals such as in ‘chakra-puja’ (worship within a circle) which may or may not involve tantra practice. This system is a part of the meditative exercises that came to be known as yoga.

The seven chakra system.

A widely popular schematic of seven chakras which are, from top to bottom, Sahasrara, Ajna, Vishuddhi, Anahata, Manipuri, Svadhisthana and Muladhara. The colours in the image are modern. The more common and most studied chakra system incorporates six major chakras along with a seventh centre generally not regarded as a chakra. These points are arranged vertically along the axial channel (sushumna nadi in Hindu texts, Avadhuti in some Buddhist texts). According to one British scholar of comparative religion specialising in Shaivism and phenomenology but with research interests that span South Asian traditions, this system of six chakras plus the ‘sahasrara’ or centre at the crown first appears in the Kubjikāmata-tantra, an eleventh-century Hindu work. It was this chakra system that was then translated in the early twentieth century by Sir John Woodroffe. The Chakras are traditionally considered meditation aids. The yogi progresses from lower chakras to the highest chakra blossoming in the crown of the head, internalising the journey of spiritual ascent. In both the Hindu kundalini and Buddhist candali traditions, the chakras are pierced by a dormant energy residing near or in the lowest chakra. In Hindu texts she is known as Kundalini, whilst in Buddhist texts she is called Candali or Tummo, Tibetan for ‘gtum mo’ or ‘fierce one’. The following are the common, modern descriptions of these six chakras and the seventh point known as sahasrara but his version incorporates the modern colours of the rainbow not found in any ancient Indian system. The ‘Sahasrara’ is the highest spiritual centre, pure consciousness, containing neither object nor subject. It is said that when the feminine Kundalini Shakti rises to this point, it unites with the masculine Shiva, giving self-realisation and ‘samadhi’. In esoteric Buddhism, it is called Mahasukha, the petal lotus of ‘Great Bliss’ corresponding to the fourth state of Four Noble Truths. Next is ‘Ajna’, a point located between the eyebrows. This is the Guru chakra, or in modern usage the third-eye chakra, the subtle centre of energy, where the tantra guru touches the seeker during the initiation ritual. He or she commands the awakened kundalini to pass through this centre. The next is ‘Vishuddha’, located at the throat and in esoteric Buddhism is called Sambhoga and is generally considered to be the petal lotus of ‘Enjoyment’ corresponding to the third state of Four Noble Truths. Then there is Anahata at the heart, and within it is a yantra of two intersecting triangles, forming a hexagram, symbolising a union of the male and female, and the element of air (vayu). In esoteric Buddhism, this Chakra is called Dharma and is generally considered to be the petal lotus of ‘Essential nature’ and corresponding to the second state of Four Noble Truths. After that is Manipura, located at the navel and for the Nath yogi meditation system, this is described as the ‘Madhyama-Shakti’ or the intermediate stage of self-discovery. This chakra is represented as a downward pointing triangle representing fire in the middle of a lotus with ten petals. After that is Svadhishthana, said to be the root of sexual organs and is represented with a lotus within which is a crescent moon symbolising the water element. In esoteric Buddhism, it is called Nirmana, the petal lotus of ‘Creation’ and corresponding to the first state of Four Noble Truths. Muladhara follows, located at the base of the spine. Dormant Kundalini is often said to be resting here, wrapped three and a half, or seven or twelve times. Sometimes she is wrapped around the black Svayambhu linga, the lowest of three obstructions to her full rising (also known as knots or granthis). It is symbolised as a four-petalled lotus with a yellow square at its center representing the element of earth. The seed syllable is ‘Lam’ for the earth element. All sounds, words and mantras in their dormant form rest in the muladhara chakra, where Ganesha resides.

In her book “Anatomy of the Spirit” (1996), Caroline Myss described the function of chakras as follows: “Every thought and experience you’ve ever had in your life gets filtered through these chakra databases. Each event is recorded into your cells”. The chakras are described as being aligned in an ascending column from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Modern practices often associate each chakra with a certain colour. In various traditions, chakras are associated with multiple physiological functions, an aspect of consciousness, a classical element and other distinguishing characteristics. These do not correspond to those used in ancient Indian systems. The chakras are visualised as lotuses or flowers with a different number of petals in every chakra. The chakras are thought to vitalise the physical body and to be associated with interactions of a physical, emotional and mental nature. They are considered loci of life energy or prana (which modern belief equates with shakti, qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese, koach-ha-guf in Hebrew, bios in Greek and aether in both Greek and English), which is thought to flow among them along pathways called nadi. The function of the chakras is to spin and draw in this energy to keep the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health of the body in balance. It is seen therefore that chakras are vortices of energy which serve as the main points of our life force, and their condition is paramount to how we feel. They affect the nerves and major organs, as well as our emotional and spiritual state. The word ‘chakra’ in Sanskrit translates to ‘wheel’ or ‘disc’. In yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda, this term refers to the wheels of energy throughout the mind-body system. Ideally, all our chakra frequencies would be in balance all the time, but this is rarely the case. Life can knock us off-balance, but there are ways to align our chakras again. I am learning that everything has a certain frequency at which it vibrates, and this is known as an object’s resonant frequency. Some objects have two or more resonant frequencies, just as we have not one, but several chakras that resonate differently. When sound or light waves, which have their own resonant frequency, hit an object it will lead to harmonic resonance if that frequency corresponds to the resonant frequency of the object. That makes sense to me. But at times, in order for harmonic resonance to occur, the amplitude of the vibration of an object must increase due to the corresponding vibrations of the other object and when that happens, they are tuned to one another. Therefore, both of them will synchronise together. Imagine that you are a clock and the universe is also a clock. If you are in tune and your frequencies match, you will start ticking together through harmonic resonance. Each chakra has its frequency of vibration, sound, colour and symbol to which it is tuned. When it is balanced, cleansed and energised, then the chakra is in harmony and plays its most beautiful melody, emitting inherent vibrations. Many aspects of life can affect these chakra frequencies and ruin the harmony, such as chaotic sounds, stress, and unhealthy thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, things like certain people’s voices, beautiful music, positive mantras, and the vibrational energy of colours and precious stones can help to bring our chakra frequencies back into harmonic resonance. Each chakra resonates at a specific frequency. My research shows that these chakra frequencies are, from bottom to top:
Root Chakra – Root – Muladhara – Red – 432 Hz
Sacral Chakra – Sacrum – Swadhisthana – Orange – 480 Hz
Solar Plexus Chakra – Navel – Manipura – Yellow – 528 Hz
Heart Chakra – Heart – Anahata – Green – 594 Hz
Throat Chakra – Throat – Vishuddha – Light Blue – 672 Hz
Third Eye Chakra – Brow – Ajna – Indigo – 720 Hz
Crown Chakra – Top of Head – Sahasrara – Purple – 768 Hz

Chakra Frequencies Chart.

There are a number of different chakra frequency healing methods that may be used to optimise and maintain these chakra frequencies and for hundreds of years scientists have been aware of the effects of sounds on the human body. Research shows that even high-frequency sounds that are imperceptible to hearing affect a person’s brain activity. Also, holistic healers know that different frequencies of sound are capable of manipulating human consciousness and even causing changes in consciousness, demonstrated by trance states resulting from the singing or beating of drums. Music evokes an emotional response in the human body, which can lead to everything from skin itching to a torrent of purifying tears. Vibration instruments such as singing bowls and gongs are used to create light waves of vibrations that are aimed at readjusting the mind. Numerous musical instruments are often used in sound frequency therapy, ranging from striking a cymbal with hammers, singing bowls, gongs, wind chimes, pan-flutes, kalimba, didgeridoo and plain drums. Such frequencies are found in musical cultures all over the world. The form most associated with Western European music is known as solfège (or solfeggio, if you’re feeling especially Italian). The name solfège is self-referential, as sol and fa are two of the syllables found in that pattern: doh-re-me-fa-soh-la-ti. These Solfeggio frequencies have been associated since ancient times with the creation of sacred music, which is believed to promote healing and it is said that when you play sounds at the following frequencies, you can bring your chakras back into resonance with their natural state. In this, several of the main Solfeggio frequencies correspond to the chakra frequencies. It is said that 174 Hz could work as a natural anaesthetic or painkiller. It can help to relieve pain, physically and energetically, it can give the organs a sense of security and love, thus encouraging them to work optimally. Then 285 Hz can help us with healing damaged tissues and organs due to its amazing ability to help us remember our inner spirit. It is said to affect our energy fields in such a way that it ‘sends a message’ about the restructuring of damaged organs and tissues and this makes it extremely useful in the process of healing wounds, cuts, burns, or any other form of damaged tissue you may have. Next is 396 Hz, the ‘Root’ chakra, corresponding to ‘Doh’ and which is said to free us from guilt and fear and is designed to dissolve negative thinking, negative emotions, and destructive behaviour. It looks for hidden blockages, subconscious negative beliefs, and ideas that distort our energy system and lead to adverse effects as well as releasing the energies of courage, strength, resourcefulness, will, and the ability to survive. Next is the 417 Hz frequency, linked to the Sacral chakra and which eliminates blocks, conventions, habits, and opens the mind to accept change. This frequency clears past traumatic experiences and destroys the devastating effects of negative events. This also corresponds to the ‘Re’ tone and can be used to help us dissolve the energies that accumulate in the energy system. These accumulated energies of unfulfilled desires, frustration, and dissatisfaction can become so dense and create such blocks that we lose our sense of interest and ‘freshness’ of life. Then everything becomes boring and meaningless. Solfeggio frequency 528 Hz correlates with the solar plexus and the note ‘Mi’, which comes from the phrase ‘Mi-ra gestorum’, meaning ‘miracle’ in Latin. This tone is seen by many as the frequency of all botanical life on earth. Next is 639 Hz, linked to the heart chakra and which is associated with the sound ‘Fa’ along with its links with communication. It is perhaps possible to use it to ease problems in relationships in the family, between partners, and with friends as this frequency strengthens relationships, tolerance, and love. It can also be used to communicate with the spiritual realms. Perhaps this is where we get the phrase ’speaking from the heart’, meaning speaking truthfully. Next is Solfeggio frequency 741 Hz, which corresponds to the note “Soh” and the throat chakra. It awakens intuition, frees us from all of the superficial, extraterrestrial influences, subordination, and dependence on outside ideas and world views. It can help with our journey to a healthy, simple life. It can assist us with dietary changes. For example, you might begin to subconsciously choose foods that are not poisoned by toxins. This frequency also helps clear the cells of various types of electromagnetic radiation. Another important application of Solfeggio 741 Hz is the possibility to help with purification of infections, whether they be viral, bacterial or fungal. It promotes a pure, stable, and spiritual life, filled with the joy of creativity and true self-expression. Solfeggio frequency 852 Hz is associated with the note ‘La’ and the third eye chakra. This frequency reveals the ability to see through the illusions of your life, restores the original ability to see and communicate with beings from the subtle world, and awakens clairvoyance. The very term ‘Ajna’, which is used to denote the sixth chakra, means ‘Perception’. We become able to perceive the world in a unity of material and spiritual. This frequency opens the ability to perceive and communicate with higher consciousness, helps us connect with our inner light, and returns us to the definition of ourselves as spiritual beings. Finally there is 963 Hz, the Crown Chakra, enabling connection with higher consciousness. The crown chakra is the highest of the seven chakras. It is located above the crown and has the name “Sahasrara” (thousandfold). It is no longer connected to any sense but opens the divine purpose and connection in our body and mind. Transcendence can be awakened.

I have written a bit more than I planned to this time, but finding the links to musical sounds gave me more than I had expected! I hope you have found it interesting.

This week…
Our faith in God is like insurance. We cannot see it, but we know it is there. We benefit from it and sometimes only remember it when we need it.

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J. S. Bach’s Music

I have also found a list of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, but they are too numerous to list here so for those interested, this is a link to the Wikipedia page: List of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach

A handwritten note by Bach in his copy of the Calov Bible.

The above note, written next to 2 Chronicles 5:13 reads: “NB Bey einer andächtigen Musiq ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart”, meaning ‘(N(ota) B(ene) In a music of worship God is always present with his grace’. From an early age, Bach studied the works of his musical contemporaries of the Baroque period and those of prior generations, and those influences were reflected in his music. Like his contemporaries Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi, Bach composed concertos, suites, recitatives, da capo arias, and four-part choral music. Some works employed a basso continuo which is used in baroque music as an accompanying part that includes a bass line and harmonies, typically played on a keyboard instrument and with other instruments such as cello or lute. The music of Bach was harmonically more innovative than his peer composers, employing surprisingly dissonant chords and progressions, often with extensive exploration of harmonic possibilities within one piece. The hundreds of sacred works Bach created are usually seen as manifesting not just his craft but also a truly devout relationship with God. He had taught Luther’s Small Catechism as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and some of his pieces represent it, in fact the Lutheran chorale was the basis of much of his work. In elaborating these hymns into his chorale preludes. He wrote more cogent and tightly integrated works than most, even when they were seen as massive and lengthy by some and the large-scale structure of every major Bach sacred vocal work is evidence of subtle, elaborate planning to create a religiously and musically powerful expression. For example, the St Matthew Passion, like other works of its kind, illustrated the Passion with Bible text reflected in recitatives, arias, choruses, and chorales. But in crafting this work, Bach created an overall experience that has been found over the intervening centuries to be both musically thrilling and spiritually profound, something I wholeheartedly agree with. Bach published or carefully compiled in manuscript many collections of pieces that explored the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in almost every genre of his time except opera. For example, The Well-Tempered Clavier comprises two books, each of which presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, displaying a dizzying variety of structural, contrapuntal and fugal techniques.

“O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”: the four-part chorale setting as included in the St. Matthew Passion.

Four-part harmonies predate Bach, but he lived during a time when modal music in Western tradition was largely supplanted in favour of the tonal system. In this, a piece of music progresses from one chord to the next according to certain rules, each chord being characterised by four notes. The principles of four-part harmony are found not only in Bach’s four-part choral music, as he also prescribes it for instance for the figured bass accompaniment. The new system was at the core of Bach’s style, and his compositions are to a large extent considered as laying down the rules for the evolving scheme that would dominate musical expression in the next centuries. Some examples of this characteristic of Bach’s style and its influence may be seen when, in the 1740s, Bach staged his arrangement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater where he upgraded the viola part (which in the original composition plays in unison with the bass part) to fill out the harmony, thus adapting the composition to his four-part harmony style. Also, starting in the 19th century in Russia, there was a discussion about the authenticity of four-part court chant settings compared to earlier Russian traditions and Bach’s four-part chorale settings, such as those ending his Chorale cantatas, were considered as foreign-influenced models. Such influence was deemed unavoidable, however. Bach’s insistence on the tonal system and contribution to shaping it did not imply he was less at ease with the older modal system and the genres associated with it, more than his contemporaries (who had ‘moved on’ to the tonal system without much exception). Bach often returned to the then-antiquated modi and genres. In addition modulation, or changing key in the course of a piece, is another style characteristic where Bach goes beyond what was usual in his time. Baroque instruments vastly limited modulation possibilities, as with keyboard instruments, prior to a workable system of temperament, limited the keys that could be modulated to, and wind instruments, especially brass instruments such as trumpets and horns, about a century before they were fitted with valves, were tied to the key of their tuning. Bach pushed the limits, as he added ‘strange tones’ in his organ playing, confusing the singing. The major development taking place in Bach’s time, and to which he contributed in no small way, was a temperament for keyboard instruments that allowed their use in all available keys (12 major and 12 minor) and also modulation without retuning. His Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, a very early work, showed a gusto for modulation unlike any contemporary work this composition has been compared to but the full expansion came with the Well-Tempered Clavier, using all keys, which Bach apparently had been developing since around 1720, the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach being one of its earliest examples.

“Aria” of the Goldberg Variations, showing Bach’s use of ornaments.

The second page of this Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is an ornament notation and performance guide that Bach wrote for his eldest son, who was nine years old at the time. Bach was generally quite specific on ornamentation in his compositions (where in his time much of the ornamentation was not written out by composers but rather considered a liberty of the performer), and his ornamentation was often quite elaborate. For instance, the Aria of the Goldberg Variations has rich ornamentation in nearly every measure. Bach’s dealing with ornamentation can also be seen in a keyboard arrangement he made of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, where he added explicit ornamentation, which some centuries later is played by oboists when performing the concerto. Although Bach did not write any operas, he was not averse to the genre or its ornamented vocal style. In church music, Italian composers had imitated the operatic vocal style in genres such as the Neapolitan mass. In Protestant surroundings, there was more reluctance to adopt such a style for liturgical music. For instance Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, had notoriously shunned opera and Italian virtuoso vocal music. Bach was less moved. One of the comments after a performance of his St Matthew Passion was that it all sounded much like opera. In concert playing in Bach’s time the basso continuo, along with instruments such as organ, viola da gamba or harpsichord, usually had the role of accompaniment, providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of a piece. From the late 1720s, Bach had the organ play ‘concertante’ (i.e. as a soloist) with the orchestra in instrumental cantata movements, a decade before Handel published his first organ concertos. Apart from the 5th Brandenburg Concerto and the Triple Concerto, which already had harpsichord soloists in the 1720s, Bach wrote and arranged his harpsichord concertos in the 1730s, and in his sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord neither instrument plays a continuo part as they are treated as equal soloists, far beyond the figured bass. In this sense, Bach played a key role in the development of genres such as the keyboard concerto. Bach wrote virtuoso music for specific instruments as well as music independent of instrumentation. For instance, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin are considered the pinnacle of what has been written for this instrument, only within reach of accomplished players. The music fits the instrument, pushing it to the full scale of its possibilities and requiring virtuosity of the player but without bravura. Notwithstanding that the music and the instrument seem inseparable, Bach made transcriptions for other instruments of some pieces of this collection. Similarly, for the cello suites, the virtuoso music seems tailored for the instrument, the best of what is offered for it, yet Bach made an arrangement for lute of one of these suites. The same applies to much of his most virtuoso keyboard music. Bach exploited the capabilities of an instrument to the fullest while keeping the core of such music independent of the instrument on which it is performed.
In this sense, it is no surprise that Bach’s music is easily and often performed on instruments it was not necessarily written for, that it is transcribed so often, and that his melodies turn up in unexpected places such as jazz music. Apart from this, Bach left a number of compositions without specified instrumentation. Another characteristic of Bach’s style is his extensive use of counterpoint, as opposed to the homophony used in his four-part Chorale settings, for example. Bach’s canons, and especially his fugues, are most characteristic of this style, which Bach did not invent but contributed to so fundamentally that he defined it to a large extent. Fugues are as characteristic to Bach’s style as, for instance, the Sonata form is characteristic to the composers of the Classical period. These strictly contrapuntal compositions, and most of Bach’s music in general, are characterised by distinct melodic lines for each of the voices, where the chords formed by the notes sounding at a given point follow the rules of four-part harmony. From about 1720, when he was thirty-five, until his death in 1750, Bach’s harmony consists in this melodic interweaving of independent melodies, so perfect in their union that each part seems to constitute the true melody, and here I think Bach excels all the composers in the world. At least, I have found no one to equal him in music known to me. Even in his four-part writing we can, not infrequently, leave out the upper and lower parts and still find the middle parts melodious and agreeable. Bach devoted more attention than his contemporaries to the structure of compositions. This can be seen in minor adjustments he made when adapting someone else’s composition, such as his earliest version of the “Keiser” St Mark Passion, where he enhances scene transitions, and in the architecture of his own compositions such as his Magnificat and Leipzig Passions. In the last years of his life, Bach revised several of his prior compositions, and often the recasting of such previously composed music in an enhanced structure was the most visible change, as in the Mass in B minor. Bach’s known preoccupation with structure led to various numerological analyses of his compositions, although many such over-interpretations were later rejected. The librettos, or lyrics, of his vocal compositions played an important role for Bach. He sought collaboration with various text authors for his cantatas and major vocal compositions, possibly writing or adapting such texts himself to make them fit the structure of the composition he was designing when he could not rely on the talents of other text authors. His collaboration with Picander for the St Matthew Passion libretto is best known, but there was a similar process in achieving a multi-layered structure for his St John Passion libretto a few years earlier.

In 1950, Wolfgang Schmieder published a thematic catalogue of Bach’s compositions called the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). Schmieder largely followed the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works that was produced between 1850 and 1900. The first edition of the catalogue listed 1,080 surviving compositions indisputably composed by Bach. This BWV range of compositions comprised as BWV 1–224: Cantatas, BWV 225–231: Motets, BWV 232–243: Liturgical compositions in Latin, BWV 244–249: Passions and Oratorios, BWV 250–438: Four-part chorales, BWV 439–524: Small vocal works, BWV 525–771: Organ compositions, BWV 772–994: Other keyboard works, BWV 995–1000: Lute compositions, BWV 1001–1040: Other chamber music, BWV 1041–1071: Orchestral music, BWV 1072–1078: Canons and BWV 1079–1080: Late contrapuntal works. BWV 1081–1126 were added to the catalogue in the second half of the 20th century, whilst BWV 1127 and higher are 21st-century additions.

Bach’s autograph of the recitative with the gospel text of Christ’s death from St Matthew Passion (Matthew 27:45–47a).

Bach composed Passions for Good Friday services and oratorios such as the Christmas Oratorio, which is a set of six cantatas for use in the liturgical season of Christmas, whilst shorter oratorios include the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio. With its double choir and orchestra, the St Matthew Passion is one of Bach’s most extended works and the St John Passion was the first passion Bach composed during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. According to his obituary, Bach would have composed five year-cycles of sacred cantatas and additional church cantatas, for example weddings and funerals. Approximately 200 of these sacred works are extant, an estimated two thirds of the total number of church cantatas he composed. The Bach Digital website lists 50 known secular cantatas by the composer, about half of which are extant or largely reconstructable. Bach also wrote a range of cantatas, both church and secular. His A cappella music includes motets and chorale harmonisations but he is perhaps best known, certainly during his lifetime, as an organist, organ consultant, and composer of organ works in both the traditional German free genres (such as preludes, fantasias and toccatas as well as stricter forms such as chorale preludes and fugues. At a young age, he established a reputation for creativity and ability to integrate foreign styles into his organ works. A decidedly North German influence was exerted by Georg Böhm, with whom Bach came into contact in Lüneburg, and Dieterich Buxtehude, whom the young organist visited in Lübeck in 1704 on an extended leave of absence from his job in Arnstadt. Around this time, Bach copied the works of numerous French and Italian composers to gain insights into their compositional languages, and later arranged violin concertos by Vivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. During his most productive period (1708–1714) he composed about a dozen pairs of preludes and fugues, five toccatas and fugues, and the Orgelbüchlein or “Little Organ Book”, an unfinished collection of 46 short chorale preludes that demonstrate compositional techniques in the setting of chorale tunes. After leaving Weimar, Bach wrote less for organ, although some of his best-known works (the six Organ Sonatas, the German Organ Mass in Clavier-Übung III from 1739, and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, revised late in his life, were composed after leaving Weimar. Bach was also extensively engaged later in his life in consulting on organ projects, testing new organs and dedicating organs in afternoon recitals. The Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” and the Schübler Chorales are organ works Bach published in the last years of his life. Bach wrote many works for harpsichord, some of which may also have been played on the clavichord or lute-harpsichord. Some of his larger works are intended for a harpsichord with two manuals, because performing them on a keyboard instrument with a single manual (like a piano) may present technical difficulties for the crossing of hands. In Books 1 and 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, each book consists of a prelude and fugue in each of the 24 major and minor keys, in chromatic order from C major to B minor. As a result, the whole collection is often referred to as ‘the 48’, and the term ‘Well-tempered’ in the title refers to the [temperament, or system of tuning. Many temperaments before Bach’s time were not flexible enough to allow compositions to utilise more than just a few keys. Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg Concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, however his application was unsuccessful. In his early youth, Bach copied pieces by other composers to learn from them. Later, he copied and arranged music for performance or as study material for his pupils.

The church in Arnstadt where Bach had been the organist from 1703 to 1707.

In 1935 the church was renamed “Bachkirche”. Throughout the 18th century, appreciation of Bach’s music was mostly limited to distinguished connoisseurs. Then the 19th century started with publication of the first biography of the composer and ended with the completion of the publication of all of Bach’s known works by the Bach Gesellschaft. A Bach Revival had started from Mendelssohn’s performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. Soon after that performance, Bach started to become regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, if not the greatest, a reputation he has retained ever since. A new extensive Bach biography was published in the second half of the 19th century. Bach was originally buried at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years, but in 1894 his remains were located and moved to a vault in St. John’s Church. This building was then destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, so in 1950 Bach’s remains were taken to their present grave in St. Thomas Church and it is sad that later research has called into question whether in fact the remains in the grave are actually those of Bach. I like to think they are his.

This week…remember.
A gossip is someone with a great sense of rumour.

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