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The Cat Organ

Updated on June 25, 2011

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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