In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to discuss composers who were inspired by pets, and their effect on the lives of famous composers and performers. Specifically cats, with some dogs for good measure. Even cows make an appearance in one story.
We’ll talk about how pets helped these people write music, and how they served as inspiration as companions and friends. Most of these stories gave me a good laugh when I was reading about them, so hopefully you’ll find some amusement in this as well.
Everything in this video has been researched, but some of these stories aren’t confirmed, and exist as lore. Still, let me know if you think I’ve made any huge errors. Additionally, if you have any interesting pet + composer stories to share, I encourage you to leave them in the comments.
Scarlatti, Pulcinella, and Fugue in G minor
Have you ever heard your cat jump on the keys and go, “Yep, that’s the start of a great song right there”? No, me neither.
But Domenico Scarlatti begs to differ! His cat, named Pulcinella, was the original creator of his Fugue in G Minor (aka “The Cat’s Fugue”). Legend has it, she walked across the keys and played these notes:
These notes served as the theme for the rest of the fugue (which Pulcinella did not write).
Here’s a video of the full tune:
Sacchini and groups of cats
If you need multiple cats for your musical inspiration, you’re not alone. Antonio Sacchini, an 18th Century composer of opera, told his friends that he could only compose when surrounded by cats. Yes, surrounded. Their presence apparently inspired his “gracious and seductive music”.
Mozart and his cat persona
The next composer on this list didn’t have any cats – rather, he preferred to imitate them. Yes, I’m referring to none other than Mozart, who would take to meowing and leaping over tables when he was bored during rehearsals. Mozart is basically the dictionary definition on why we tend to think of musicians as a little eccentric.
Chopin, Marquis and the Little Dog Waltz
Chopin wrote a couple of tunes under the influence of animals. His paramour, George Sand, had a little dog named Marquis, whom Chopin was fond of. According to legend, the two were watching Marquis chase his tail and Sand remarked, “If I had your talent, I would compose a piano piece for this dog.”
Chopin did just that, and the famous “Minute Waltz” was born. Chopin himself nicknamed the piece the “Little Dog Waltz”.
Chopin, Valdeck and Waltz in F major
George Sand didn’t just have a dog – she also had a cat named Valdeck. And like Scarlatti’s talented cat, this cat would sometimes run across the keys of Chopin’s piano, which inspired his Waltz in F major (Op. 34, no. 3, nicknamed “The Cat Waltz”).
It might just be a legend, but those opening, bashing chords remind me of a cat jumping on a piano.
And then about a minute in, there are these really cute “blup blup blup” notes that could easily be imitating a cat hopping across a piano.
Ravel and his Siamese cat family
But if anyone is going to win the crown for Crazy Cat Lady Man, it’s the impressionist composer Maurice Ravel. We don’t know exactly how many cats he had, but the answer is probably something like a lot. We know he shared a house with a Siamese cat “family”, for example.
Ravel did normal cat-person things, like let his cats hang out on his desk, play with them, and tell endless stories to his friends about their lives. But he also went a step further and spoke to them. As in, he could speak Cat-ese – and could understand them.
Meowing made its way into Ravel’s music as well. He wrote an opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, with an awesome premise – a little boy is basically a huge jerk and disrespects his belongings, but then his belongings come to life and can talk (including the animals).
The Duo miaule (meowed duet) is for a male and female, and it’s amazing.
this video is a little suggestive – you have been warned.
Apparently, one time Ravel and his friend were singing the Meowed Duet together, and it had the effect of summoning his family of Siamese cats, who were apparently very concerned. Perhaps Ravel could communicate with them after all.
Debussy and Angora cats
Another French impressionist composer was fond of cats – none other than Claude Debussy. But where Ravel was a fan of Siamese cats, Debussy liked long-haired Angora cats. Apparently all of his cats had the same name (like a family lineage – when one died, the next would bear the same name). Unfortunately I don’t know what that name is, and it’s driving me crazy. If you happen to come across the name of Debussy’s cats, for the love of everything, please let me know.
Debussy, like Ravel, was also generous in the permissions he allowed his cats. They were allowed to wander amongst all the papers in his workspace, as well as being allowed to “sow disorder among the pencils”. (He isn’t noted to have the powers to communicate with cats, though).
Wagner and his love of dogs
This video is about 90% cats, but some composers were big fans of dogs as well. Richard Wagner was a big dog person, and there are tons of tales about his dogs, especially Russ and Kos.
There’s a good story about Kos. One day, Kos the Terrier got into a fight with another terrier, and the two ended up fighting on train tracks, as a train was approaching. Wagner ran to the rescue and saved Kos in the nick of time.
Russumuck, shortened to Russ, was a Newfoundland dog (Wagner had one previously, named Robber). Russ didn’t help Wagner write music, but he liked to hang out when Wagner was working. Russ liked to get dirty, and Wagner’s wife wasn’t too happy about him making their house filthy – so she suggested Russ sleep outside. Wagner was like, “If he sleeps outside, so do I!”
Glenn Gould: The Cow Whisperer
And finally, our most modern example.
Though some people identify as a “cat person” or “dog person”, Canadian performer Glenn Gould was really just more of an animal person. He’s quoted as saying that by the age of six, he discovered that he got “along much better with animals than humans”.
Gould really liked singing to cows as a kid. His dad talked about how, when they were at the cottage, he’d take off on his bike and one day, he went looking for him to find that he was singing Mahler to a bunch of cows, who were all lined up to listen. Gould himself said, “I really felt that a special bond had been established. Certainly I’ve never encountered so attentive an audience before.”
Composers who were inspired by pets: Conclusion
And that concludes this fun video on famous composers who were inspired by pets. It seems like there have been a lot of musicians out there who enjoy the company of cats, and for hundreds of years at that.
Which was your favorite story? Got any other famous composer + animal stories?