The Cat Organ

A Distressed Tail

Legend has it the heinous musical device, the Cat Organ or Katzenklavier, was made up of a row of captive cats with their outstretched tails pressed underneath a keyboard. As a key was pressed, the connected cat cried in pain. Each cat would be placed according to its natural tone -thus a musical cacophany of tortured but harmonious cat cries ensued.


Sounds like a practical joke but the instrument was described by 17th century German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in his expansive work, Musurgia Universalis. Indeed, Kirchner, Master of One Hundred Arts, designed his own, although tales of the Cat Organ predate even Musurgia Universalis.


While it is true many believe the cat organ is merely a 'concept instrument', this writer is not so sure. There is some evidence it was actually a real, though perhaps not popular instrument (hard to tune) . In his book about bizarre inventions - Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre, published in 1860, the French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin described a visit by Felipe II to his father emporer Charles V, in Brussells in 1549. The visitor was delighted by a "curious procession' of 'singular music' which included a bear playing the Cat Organ:


There were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow.



Image from J-B. Wecherlin, Musiciana
Image from J-B. Wecherlin, Musiciana
Master of 100 Arts..Athanasius Kirchner. Image form Wikipedia
Master of 100 Arts..Athanasius Kirchner. Image form Wikipedia

Psychiatric Uses

Later, in the late 18th century the cat organ was even contemplated for use by physicians as a cure for mental illness. German doctor, Johan Christian Reil lauded its potential for treating patients with a damaged attention-span:


A fugue played on this instrument – when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals – must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.


The good doctor was apparently under the impression that if these poor, unfocused patients were compelled to suffer the sight and sound of this remarkable instrument they would be would be so startled a cure would follow.


Whether or not Reil actually used it or whether or not it was successful, I cannot say but in any case, it appears the innovative treatment didn't catch on.

Image from The Telegraph
Image from The Telegraph

The Cat Organ Delights Royals


In a pitiable tune of tortures gone by
A man recreated the cat organs cry
Onlookers squealed as he hammered their tails
and the Prince and his Duchess laughed at the wails

An interested cat watched from a roof
What was the point of this curious spoof?
It readied its claws at cruel human joys
Then purred with relief...they were only toys!


The Cat Piano

Narrated by cool cat Nick Cave in the style of a beat poem by Eddie White, The Cat Piano is a short noir-ish film about cats and musical cruelty.


The story focuses on a music loving city of cats whose hep musicians are kidnapped by a callous human, obsessed with an ambition to make a cat piano...probably inspired by the Katzenklavier.


Made by The People's Republic of Animation, the film won several awards and was nominated for an Oscar.


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Comments 36 comments

De Greek profile image

De Greek 5 years ago from UK

I say, steady on there old girl, there are gentlemen present! You just can't bandy titles around like "The Cat Organ Delights Royals" without causing the sensitive male to shudder in horror!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

Considering some of the cartoons I used to watch, I guess it isn't that strange.


Stan Fletcher profile image

Stan Fletcher 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

I love cats, but I think I would like to try "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or some other very short song on a cat organ, just to say I did...


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

I hereby urge all the cats in the world to write to their respective congresspersons to immediately ban this barbarous practice and throw all practitioners of same into the nearest dungeon.

Thanks for this newsflash, Jane. I was grievously under-informed on this subject.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Hmmmm, perhaps we could make a male organ organ? With attached piano wire, I'm sure the "organs" could be persuaded to produce the correct notes when the wire attached to their organ was struck.

I cannot imagine the cruel imagination of whoever it was that thought up a "cat organ", or whoever it is that would actually enjoy playing such an instrument.

I think Stan has some sort of weird relationship with cats and he should be the first to volunteer for the man organ organ!


Merlin Fraser profile image

Merlin Fraser 5 years ago from Cotswold Hills

Hi Jane,

I know we all see different adverts when we open a Hub Page most triggered by the information that Google has stripped and gathered from what they conceive our interests to be ....

Opening your page... I got an advert for a Piano Remover... but at a push I'm sure they'd shift an organ.

And Boy, don't know about Stan but am I going to give Austin Texas a wide birth !!!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Okay, Jane. You've sold me on The Cat Piano. Art deco style animation, great use of various blues to create mood and a modern Australian singer/mouthpiece like Cave sounding like he belongs in the Jazz/Blues age but then again don't we all if we have a heart? Maybe just a little heart? Sure film noir as you say but nothing wrong with that.

As for the cat organ, well, there are a lot of cat lovers around and it is hard to imagine a European type fellow being that into torturing cats and being able to get away with it unless you bring in the aspect of witchcraft and think of cats in terms of familiars. Certainly then a Jesuit scholar/priest might well find the idea of torturing cats this way not a bad thing.

As for the German doctor thinking a cat organ might shock some patients back into reality, I doubt very much if it would really work. It would startle a patient who has a low attention span, sure, but then what? Do you then keep shocking them with more and more bizarre sights and sounds? Ultimately a shock doesn't last for very long and its not what reality is mostly composed of anyway. I don't believe in shock treatment of any kind. Balancing a person's mind back to reality and to a sane approach to continued existence does, however, work.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Awww Merlin, you're safe. I do not torture animals of any kind. Well, maybe in my mind I do. Hahaha

I can see the Man Organ Organ being parodied on Saturday Night Live or even Monty Python!


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Whoa! Just watched the video. Rod gave an accurate review that I couldn't resist. Excellent.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Ha! Thanks Austinstar!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Lol@De Greek...oh I wish you hadn't said that. I'm getting some very weird visuals now...;)

Good point Dahoglund! Thanks for reading.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Stan..how about "What's New Pussycat"..?


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

drbj...absolutely. Just because it happened 500 years ago, doesn't men it couldn't happen again...:)Cats must stay alert!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hahah...Austin. That would just make a fantastic horror film!

Move over 'Human Centipede'...Austin/Bovary productions are coming to an underground cinema near you.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Merlin, the ad combatibility thing is interesting sometimes. As to the male organ - oh my, now I really AM getting disturbing visuals...;)


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, glad you enjoyed 'The Cat Piano' and thanks for the review -you've really described the mood well there. Nick Cave does a very good job, I agree..he suits the tone.

In those violent times they tortured people often enough and got away with it...why not cats? Yes, there was always that witch/cat association wasn't there?

Lol, the cat organ-as-psychiatric treatment was a nutty idea. I guess that's why it never caught on. It confirms my suspicions that some pyschiatrists are crazier than the patients.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Cats are night creatures, Jane and in the medieval mind night creatures are more likely to have a connection with Satan. Meanwhile, for a lonely widow who has lost her family in the plague and only has a hovel to live in and a dirt patch to farm, her cat seems to her to be a good and faithful companion. The cat takes care of rodents and other vermin and she sees nothing wrong in that. Rabbits and other pets have also been accused of being familiars to so-called witches.

Yes, some psychiatrists were crazier than their patients. There was a theory one time or maybe a touch of theology that crazy people were possessed by demons because they were lazy with their prays and hadn't worked hard enough to form that connection with God. The answer was to punish them back to good mental health. That, too, was a nutty idea but it persisted up until the likes of Freud brought science into the question of why some people had mental health and others did not.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, thanks...good points. The witch/cat connection could well have had something to do with women living alone, who took on a cat for comfort.I've just been reading about 'Cat Wednesday' which took place in Northern France a few hundred yesrs ago. Hundreds of cats were burnt alive in the belief that they were witches in disguise.

Come to think of it, shock treatment has long been a part of psychiatric care - ice baths, EST, etc. I hadn't heard about the prayer thing...yes, definitely crazy.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Good information. Maybe a hub about 'Cat Wednesday'?

I'm not surprised by the cat burning. During the beginning of the last plague to hit London all stray cats and dogs plus those owned by ordinary, humble folk were put to death to stop the plague spreading. As it was the cats and dogs who kept the rats down in number, the plague actually spread more rapidly without them being around.

Getting good with God has always been a big thing and so has looking for people who are not good with God.


jrsearam profile image

jrsearam 5 years ago from San Juan, PR

What a trip...you learn something new every day. JR


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, Cat Wednesday would make a good hub but I think I'm all catted out..;). Interesting about the plague...it was the fleas on the rats wasn't it?

Hey jsearm, thanks for visiting.


Stan Fletcher profile image

Stan Fletcher 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

Austin - sick, sick, sick woman. But full of great ideas! I just tried it. Seems to play the same old tune every time though - the Oscar Meyer Weiner song.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Yes, Jane it was the fleas on the rats that transmitted the disease to the humans.

The cats and dogs, if allowed to live, would have kept the rat population down and thus saved lives.

No cats and dogs in the poorer parts of London because they'd been killed off meant the rats were free to spread everywhere and so was the plague. Cats and dogs at times have been our greatest protectors as well as our most erstwhile friends and companions.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Oh, I wish I had an Oscar Meyer Weiner, but I am trying to reduce the megabutt, so I guess it's best I don't have one.

Bubonic plague was definitely caused by rats and lack of cats. It's also the reason for hanta virus in the four corners region of the U.S.A.

Cats are our friends and no one should be playing Cat Organ!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Good of you to step in with added information, there, Austinstar.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

I don't know what an 'Oscar Meyer Weiner' is but it sounds dangerous.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

I think an 'Oscar Meyer Weiner' is some kind of sausage. Maybe legend has it that it once contained cat? God knows what goes into Aussie snags.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hahaha..oh I hope not.

Thanks Rod...what would I do with out you?


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

You never heard the Oscar Meyer Weiner song? (It's a brand of hot dog)

Oh, I'm glad I'm not an Oscar Meyer Weiner

That is what I'd truly hate to be

Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner

Everyone would take a bite of me!


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Second verse:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner

That is what I'd truly like to be

Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner

Everyone would be in love with me!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Hmmm! Hot dog is pretty close to snag. The cooking is just a bit different.

Fun song Austinstar.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

What a charming old American song...;-)


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

I love cats. It's hard to believe some things people do - and with cats! Thank you Jane.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks Micky


Purple Perl profile image

Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

Interesting.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks for reading Purple Perl

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