A PURRfect Pairing: mewsic & cats

Yellow cat

Worshiped in Ancient Egypt, decorating the margins of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, and appearing in poems dating back to at least the 16th century, cats were beloved cohabiters with humans long before the species became the “I Can Has Cheezburger” floofy super-stars of the Internet (a phenomenon that is explored in the ebook Cat is Art Spelled Wrong).

Worshiped in Ancient Egypt, decorating the margins of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, and appearing in poems dating back to at least the 16th century, cats were beloved cohabiters with humans long before the species became the “I Can Has Cheezburger” floofy super-stars of the Internet (a phenomenon that is explored in the ebook Cat is Art Spelled Wrong).

Cat is Art Spelled Wrong

Musical MEOWstros

Many a musician enjoys the comforting companionship of a kitteh. Composer Jennifer Higdon, previous Barr Institute Laureate at the UMKC Conservatory, includes her cats in her biography portrait. She’s not alone in her appreciation, with Igor Stravinsky , Philip Glass, and Charles Wuorenin among the ranks of cat-loving composers. Maurice Ravel claimed to speak “cat language” to his Siamese cats.

Of course, caring for cats goes beyond appreciating their musicality. Bassist and composer Charles Mingus, along with writing “Pussy Cat Dues,” crafted a manual titled The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat.

Exhibit displayed on the Ground Floor of Miller Nichols Library.

Hey Diddle Diddle: Cats as Musicians

In the popular nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” the cat plays the fiddle. The whimsy of the poem often translates into music. Beth Anderson uses the rhyme in her cycle “Cat Songs” from her 2004 recording Quilt Music.

While cats don’t actually play string instruments, they have been known to tinkle the ivories with their beans, documented by their human companions. Domenico Scarlatti (1738) created Fugue in G minor based on his cat Pulchinella’s improvisation (though that may have been a marketing ploy by his publisher). Amy Beach, inspired by Scarlatti, attributes the thematic material for her Fantasia fugata, op. 87 to the cat Hamlet (1923). UMKC’s LaBudde special collections houses a copy of Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys,” a novelty song from 1921. Composer Moshe Cotel submitted a little melody by his cat Ketzel that won honorable mention in the Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition in 1993.

Alvan Curran uses a recording of a cat purring in his piece “Light Flowers Dark Flowers,”included in his collection Solo Works: The ’70s.

Fine Felines: cats as inspiration

Poets found inspiration with these adorable, yet aloof, creatures (as seen in Fe-Lines: French Cat Poems through the Ages and A Celebration of Cats), and composers, in turn, set those words to music. Christopher Smart’s “I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,” part of Jubilate Agno written 1759-63, inspired Benjamin Britten and Ruth Gipps, whose cantata “The Cat” was the first score by a woman accepted for a doctorate. Sadly, it was never published or recorded.

William Blake’s metaphysical “The Tyger” appears in art songs by Virgil Thomson, Beth Anderson, and Rebecca Clarke. Igor Stravninsky’s used the Edward Lear’s nonsense poem “The Owl and The Pussycat” in his last composition, which used 12 tone method. T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” inspired Alan Rawsthorne’s “Practical Cats” song cycle and, of course, the Broadway mega-hit “CATS.”

Caterwaling: cats in song

Just like the groovy “Jellicle songs for Jellicle cats,” cats singing and playing instruments has oft caught our fancy, depicted in Medieval manuscripts, engravings, GIFS, and memes.

When it comes to singing, though, cats get a bad rap. In the 1948 Looney Tunes cartoon, “Back Alley Oproar,” Sylvester antagonizes Elmer Fudd while obnoxiously singing a medley of opera arias. But long before cat song became inescapably linked to a cat food commercial jingle, composers found themselves setting mewling to melody.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart explores the language of cats in the comic duet “Nun liebes Weibchen” from the opera Der Stein der Weisen. Cursed Lubanara can only speak in meows. Her husband, Lubano, tries to communicate with her in what becomes a duet of mews. The famous “Duetto buffo di due gatte,” in which two sopranos have a high-pitched catfight, is not actually by Gioachino Rossini, but the spoof does include themes from his opera.

Cats are known for their extreme vocal range and abilities. Cruelly, during the 17th and 18th centuries cats were used for entertainment in katzenklaviers (cat pianos/organs), contraptions that hurt their tails to make them wail, supposedly in pitch.

Hep & cool: swingin’ cats

Around the 1930s and 1940s, “hep cat” or “cool cat” entered the argot for jazz musicians, a mark of excellence. This indicator found its way into animation, with the swing-infused song “Everybody Wants to be a Cat,” from Disney’s 1970 Aristocrats, which featured Scat Man Crothers (the story, perhaps, inspired by the possibly apocryphal tale of 17th century harpist Mademoiselle Dupuy, who left a considerable fortune to her cat).

And who doesn’t like a good pun? Cat Anderson, trumpeter with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, wrote a trumpet-showcase work titled, “El Gato,” and many of his album titles played off his nickname. Enjoy a few of our biographies about musicians who embraced the sobriquet “cat”: Contemporary Cat, about Terence Blanchard; Go, Cat, Go!, about Carl Perkins; and An Unsung Cat, about Warne Marsh.

Visit the collection display on the Ground Floor in the Music/Media Library to learn more about cats and music, as well as our student assistants’ fur-babies.

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EXHIBIT DISPLAY TABLES

Case dimensions: 5’ long x 30” wide x 9” high sitting atop 3’ legs

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FIRST FLOOR GALLERY

The First Floor Gallery is located just inside the main entrance of the Miller Nichols Library.

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Conference Room 325

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