Dessin piano à chats
Dessin piano à chats

The legend of the cat piano: the most sadistic of instruments

Did this terrible instrument actually exist in the seventeenth century? Was it really used by doctors to treat their patients? The legend of the cat piano remains a mystery.

A word of warning: soft-hearted souls (and cat lovers) should not read on. To imagine what the cat piano looked like, picture 10 cats lined up, each in a box, with the cats' tails held securely underneath a keyboard. Each time a key is played, it hits the tail of the corresponding cat or, in the worst case, pricks it with a needle, thus producing piercing mewing sounds.

The first mention of this instrument of torture dates back to the early sixteenth century. The first image of the cat piano (or cat organ) appeared in 1596, hundreds of years before the   real piano's invention. The drawing is taken from the book  Emblemata saecularia: mira et iucunda varietate saeculi huius mores ita exprimentia ut sodalitatum symbolis written by Jean Théodorede Bry, a German copper-plate engraver and publisher.

A therapeutic instrument

A half a century after the first image of this mysterious instrument appeared, the cat organ was generating enormous excitement in therapeutic circles. Legend had it that an Italian prince was suddenly cured on seeing the image of these "musical" cats.

In the early nineteenth century, a medical theoretician by the name of Johann Christian Reil cited the cat piano in one of his psychology treatises as a treatment for mental illnesses and specifically schizophrenia. He claimed that therapists could use the piano to draw patients' attention to the instrument's novelty (and cruelty?), thereby bringing them back into the real world.

Playing a fugue on this instrument, in such a way that the patient can see the cats' expression and the way they make music, can bring the patient back from a trance-like state to a state of mindfulness. Johann Christian Reil

Other traces of the cat piano have been found over the centuries, but never any tangible proof that such an instrument was ever actually built and used. However it intrigued various researchers, such as the Frenchman Louis-Bertrand Castel, who was born in the early eighteenth century. This scientist referred to the cat organ as proof of his theory that what mattered in music was not so much the sounds in themselves as the combination of sounds. He said the fact that a sound could turn a cat's mewing into music supported his theory that:

Sounds in themselves do not produce any beauty whatsoever. The real beauty of music comes not from the sound but from the melodic sequence and the harmonic combination of all of the many, varied sounds.

In more recent times, the legend inspired a short film called The Cat Piano, which was released in 2009 and won an award at the Annecy Film Festival. The animated film invents a city of musical cats, in which an evil human prowler abducts cats in order to build the horrifying cat piano and play a symphony of wretched mewing.

Another recent appearance of the instrument occurred in 2010 at a London eco-festival. Prince Charles, on a visit to the event, listened to a musical rendition on a cat organ. Rest assured that no real cats were used: instead of live animals, rubber cats made sounds somewhere between a squeak and a mew, and Prince Charles enjoyed it immensely.

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