Cats and Classical Music
Clever Klavier Cats
Cats can be great companions but they are renowned for having minds of their own and don't necessarily obey human rules. Nevertheless they command amazing loyalty from their owners whose devotion knows no bounds, and that includes some famous composers. There are many cat tales surrounding composers, some of whom have been just as attached to their furry friends as any of us.
Alexander Borodin 1833-1887
The Crazy Cat Loving Borodins
Chemist and part time composer Borodin was exceedingly fond of cats, so much so that his great friend Rimsky-Korsakov was moved to comment on it:
"Many cats, that the Borodins lodged, marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests."
Borodin's wife Ekaterina, herself a fine pianist, was potty about them, and when one of the cats brought home orphaned kittens, she found room for them.1
One of the cats earned the name Ryborov, meaning fisherman, as he learned to catch fish through holes in iced up waters.2
In Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmilla the first song is about a cat who when moves to the right sings and to the left tells stories.
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Ravel's Elegant Siamese
Ravel loved beautiful things, so I suppose if he were to be a cat lover he was bound to favour a particularly elegant breed. Unlike the Borodins who took in any old moggie carried over their threshold, Ravel's penchant was for Siamese.3
The author Julius Jacobson wrote, "Apparently, he went a bit overboard with the cats, allowing them to invade his worktable, speaking to them in cat language, playing with them ceaselessly, and filling letters to his friends with their details.” 4
After he moved to his petite house 'Belvedere' outside Paris, he filled it with his beloved cats. Ravel was photographed cuddling kittens that were born there and designated his friend, the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, as godmother, writing , “Your godson is in good shape, but his brother has so gorged himself that he is suffering from gastritis. This doesn’t prevent them from playing jungle on the lawn.”He finshed his letter, " I lick the end of your nose." 5
His opera Enfant et Sortillages (The Child and Spells) features a duet, Duo mialé, sung by a Tom and female cat for which his librettist, the author Colette, thought up a special cat language.6
For humorous stories about a Siamese cat, click here.
Frederic Chopin 1810-1849
Chopin's Waltzing Cat
Famous for his partnership with the writer George Sands, she came into his life with two children, a dog and a cat. Valdeck, the cat made it to posterity when he walked across the piano keys at her home in Nohant.
The amused Chopin incorporated the Persian's antics into a waltz, which inevitably became known as 'The Cat Waltz', though if you like, you can refer to it simply as the Valse Brilliante. When you listen to the video, at a minute in you might hear the patter of naughty paws over the keys.
George Sands' House at Nohant
The author of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald owned a cat called Chopin.
Domenico Scarlatti 1685-1757
Domenico Scarlatti's Cat Fugue
Scarlatti's cat was supposedly his inspiration for The Cat's Fugue. Like Chopin's Valdeck, whose steps were turned into a waltz, it walked up the keyboard.
In fact the nickname The Cat's Fugue was conjured up in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Scarlatti did indeed own a cat - called Pulcinella - and it did wander over the harpsichord keys, as described by Scarlatti himself. It's unlikely though, that Pulcinella's paws would choose such an organised path, an upward progression of minor thirds. Those minor thirds happen to be very convenient when it comes to needing an interesting theme to use as a basis for a fugue, sounding as if someone - or something (a cat, for instance?) - is tiptoeing along, and perhaps doesn't want to get caught!7
Scarlatti's Cat Fugue Motif Acending in Minor Thirds
Pulcinella formed the basis of a book by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer entitled "Scarlatti's Cat".
Peter Warlock 1894-1930
Peter Warlock's Cat Avoids Catastrophe
Peter Warlock was what we might think of as a character. Actually he was more of a reprobate. He was born Philip Heseltine but due to his fascination with the occult, preferred to use Peter Warlock as a pseudonym for his compositions and music criticism.
Amongst those in his circle were such luminaries of dubious reputation including the writer D H Lawrence of Lady Chatterley's Lover fame (or infamy) and Augustus John, the painter, both of whom were well known for hard drinking and womanising, men after Warlock's heart.9
On the periphery of this circle was budding composer Denis ApIvor who shared a flat with a cat breeder, John Scott who was interested in Warlock's music. According to ApIvor's memoirs, Scott was intent on breeding a 'rival to Philip's red cat'. 10
Warlock must have been very fond of his feline companions (probably far more so than his many mistresses and liaisons) as he put his cat out before he was poisoned from coal gas. The very fact that he had the foresight or consideration to make sure it was out of harm's way lead to speculation that he committed suicide.11
He had previously threatened to take his own life by that very method, as testified by Barbara Peache with whom he was living at the time, corroborated by his friend Lionel Jellinek. Warlock was only 36.12
Ignacy Paderewski 1860-1941
Paderewski and the Puss
It is not often that a concert pianist also makes it onto another stage - the world stage. But composer-pianist Paderewski did just that and became Poland's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in 1919.
We would tend to think, perhaps, that such confidence in one's abilities would shield them from the anxieties of stage fright. Not so. Paderewski was performing at his first important London concert when his nerve was compromised. What should casually wander by and jump onto his lap, but a cat, and there it stayed for the rest of the performance?
Paderewski admitted he was calmed by its presence. Maybe it purred in tune.13
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
A Catty Tale About Brahms
One composer who appears to have been maligned as far as the feline species is concerned, was Brahms. For years rumours abounded that Brahms was a cat murderer with extraordinary peculiarities.
The scandalous stories were attributed to Wagner, who was not above a little light backstabbing. Onto this convenient hook, the author and zoologist Desmond Morris, hung the accusation that Brahms took pleasure in spearing cats with a bow and arrow given to him by Dvorak. Writing in Cat World, he alleged Wagner had observed Brahms taking aim from his Viennese apartment to shoot the poor creatures. His next calculated step was to reel in the unfortunate moggies, and then took great pleasure in annotating their death throe mews. Worse still, these last cries made their way into his chamber music.
It really is the stuff of nightmares. However, Wagner had no time for Brahms, and they met only the once, and as this meeting was nowhere near Brahms' living quarters, how could Wagner have witnessed any executions from a distance that was, not to put too fine a point on it, out of line of sight?
Furthermore the bow and arrow set was curiously labelled as a 'Bohemian sparrow slaying bow', a curious description if ever there were one, and would no doubt have toxopholites doubled up at the very idea. Paradoxically gifted in person by Dvorak, he would himself have had to have been on the wrong side of normal, however they never met. Lastly, when pressed, Morris could not lay his hands on any evidence to corroborate his tall furry tale.14
Although we don't believe Mozart owned any cats (or any cats that owned Mozart come to that) it didn't stop him imitating them during rehearsals. Seeing him leapfrogging tables and miaowing must had pepped up a dull afternoon.
Gioacchini Rossini 1792-1868
Rossini and the Cat Duet
Ridiculously silly but highly entertaining, Duetti Buffo dei due Gatti has had audiences in stitches sending up the operatic aria. Most people assign it to Rossini, himself an operatic composer of note, as it appropriates music from his opera Othello, but it's more likely to have been compiled as a great wheeze by Robert Lucas de Pearsall under the nom de plume G, Berthold.15
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Debussy's Adored Angoras
Mme de Romilly, a friend of Debussy and Lilly Texier (Debussy's first wife), wrote of their domestic arrangement:
"The two cats, which Debussy cherished, occupied an important place in the family, and had all their whims respected. As silent as their master, they had the right to spend the day solemnly on the desk, and if they wished, to sow disorder among the pencils."16
Debussy's penchant were Angoras who were pretty well given free reign, saying they "sow disorder among the pencils."
The little known French composer Henri Sauguet had a cat called Cody who went wild when Debussy's music was played. He also composed a ballet for Diaghilev called "La Chatte" (The Cat) about a man who falls in love with a cat which is transformed into a woman. 'Chatte' is the female version in French for the word 'cat'.
Sir John Tavener 1944-2013
John Tavener's Memorial to Cats
John Taverner is most renowned for composing The Protecting Veil. He composed In Memory of Two Cats in 1985, the two cats in question are Daisy and Nimrod.
It's a short ditty, really, starting with what must surely be the cats making their own music across the piano keys, randomly selected by paws, ending in similar fashion, bookends to this touching tribute. The main interior has two parts , presumably one cat to each line, very simple and just a little bit languorous, exactly like a cat.
10 Musicweb International
11 The Guardian
12 Fact Republic
14 The Guardian
© 2019 Frances Metcalfe