The strong connection between humans and animals, especially pets, has been known for thousands of years. Composers are no different from us mere mortals in that many of them, too, had cherished pets, and some even wrote music inspired by animals. Following my previous post on the topic, let’s “paws” for a few more pet “tails.”
The story goes that Domenico Scarlatti’s cat Pulcinella once jumped up onto his harpsichord’s keyboard and produced a 4-note theme. It was not typical of the music of the time, but it intrigued Scarlatti so much that he used the phrase to write his Fugue in G minor, K. 30. Scarlatti never called the piece “The Cat Fugue,” but the nickname it picked up in the 18th century has stuck to this day. Here’s a cool rendition as harpsichordist Elaine Comparone plays standing up.
American composer Amy Beach was so charmed by the Scarlatti cat story that she used it a jumping off point for her own Fantasia fugata, Op. 87. She included an inscription that read: “The composer is indebted to ‘Hamlet’, a large black Angora who had been placed on the keyboard with the hope that he might emulate Scarlatti’s cat and improvise a fugue.” Here’s Joanne Polk.
There are many stories about Mozart and his sometimes, shall we say, eccentric behavior. Apparently, one odd thing the composer liked to do was to imitate cats. And there are at least two stories of different occasions where Mozart, who was said to have a low boredom threshold, suddenly started meowing loudly, and leaped over nearby tables and chairs.
Mozart’s affection for cats, however, actually proved a help to his career early on. When he was nine, the Mozart family traveled to London. The Royal Society, a 360-year-old British organization dedicated to the sciences, doubted the child prodigy’s age. They felt no one could be such a genius and so accomplished so young and suspected that he was actually an “adult dwarf.” They thought his father Leopold was lying in order to make Wolfgang’s achievements seem more spectacular.
They sent Daines Barrington to visit and find out the truth. Barrington put the boy through a series of tests, including covering the keys with a cloth to see if Mozart could still play from just the sense of touch. The story goes that a favorite cat entered the room and the child left the piano to play with it and it took a long time to get him back to the instrument. Seeing that typical childlike action is what finally convinced Barrington that Mozart was, indeed, still a child.
Another famous cat lover was French composer Maurice Ravel. While it’s not known definitively how many cats he owned at any one time there is one account claiming there were at least 7 Siamese (his favorite breed) in the house. Ravel claimed that he could speak the cat language and did so, even when there were guests in the room.
The cats were allowed to frolic in his work room, and even climb up onto his piano. I mentioned in last year’s pets blog that there was one musical instance of his love for cats in his music. In his opera, L’enfant et les sortilège, (The Child and the Spells), a naughty little boy mistreats his belongings and one night the toys and furniture and animals take revenge on him, including a dark “Duo miaule” for male and female voices. Here’s a scene from a São Paulo performance:
Ravel loved his cats so much that, when he had visitors, he spoke to them endlessly about his cats, and when he wrote to family and friends, he filled several pages describing their every moves.
I couldn’t find a citation that Beethoven ever owned a pet; however, one did work its way into his heart. The 40-year-old composer had fallen in love with his 18-year-old piano student Therese Malfatti and proposed to her. Many speculated that she rejected him more for his famous volatile temper than for the age difference. Although their personal relationship didn’t work out, Beethoven was befriended by Therese’s dog, Gigons. At one point Beethoven wrote to a friend, “You’re wrong to think Gigons only goes to you. No, I too had the good fortune to have him stick to my company. He dined by my side in the evening, and then accompanied me home. In short, he provided some very good entertainment.”
Another dog lover was English composer Edward Elgar, who owned a spaniel named Marco before he married. Unfortunately, Elgar’s wife Alice didn’t care for dogs and Elgar was dogless during their 30-year marriage. He had to make due with walks with his friend George Robertson Sinclair’s bulldog Dan, who was remembered in No. XI of the “Enigma” Variations. Elgar wrote that the first few bars depicted the dog “falling down the steep bank into the River Wye, paddling upstream to find a landing place, and his rejoicing bark on landing.” Here’s the Symphony Orchestra of India.
After Alice died in 1920, Elgar adopted two dogs, another Marco and Mina. There’s a story told that Elgar conducted a live broadcast concert when he was 70. At the end of the concert he gave a short speech which included saying good night to Mina. The dog was described as being very excited hearing her name and her master’s voice over the radio.
American avant-garde composer George Crumb, who passed away in February of this year, was a known lover of dogs. His 1998 suite for guitar and percussion, Mundus Canis (A Dog’s World), describes the dogs that his family owned over the years. Here’s the whole piece, with the fifth and final movement titled “Yoda.” It’s not about the famous Star Wars character, but his dog of that same name, “…a fluffy-white animal of mixed parentage and mercurial temperament.” You’re sure to get a chuckle for how that section ends!
CODA: And leaving you with one more piece for cat lovers. Although the Duetto buffo per due gatti is attributed to Gioachino Rossini, there are many scholars who say some of the music is Rossini’s but the “cat parts” were added by someone else. There are many fun versions to be found online, but this one is pawsitively hiss-terical!