(La Nature, 1883)

Father Kircher reports in Book VI of the Musurgia Universalis of an artist who invented, in order to dispel the melancholy of a prince who was beset by worries, a cat piano. Instead of strings, his instrument contained a number of cats’ tails inserted into narrow sheaths, beneath which there went up and down the hammers corresponding to keys, bearing on their extremities a sharp point. The cats are chosen by sex and age and arranged side by side in separate boxes according to the pitch of their voice.

Under the agile fingers of the pianist, the points of the hammers artfully attacked the animals’ tails. These responded first with meows quick and sharp, but then, enraged by the frequency of the pricks, they changed, crescendo et rinforzando, into sounds that could enliven the most sullen spirit, and make even the mice break out in dance.

The story of the cat piano (German Katzenklavier, French piano des chats) is surely one of the most strange and vexing affairs in the entire domain of speculative organology. The earliest images of the instrument date from around 1600, and purport to depict the (probably spurious) use of the cat piano in the witches’ Sabbath. Another tradition, indicated by the anecdote of Athanasius Kircher, suggests that the instrument was employed in the treatment of the mentally ill — making the cat piano an unlikely aid to what we would now call “music therapy.” Such a clinical use of the instrument appears as late as 1803, in a book entitled Rhapsodien über die Anwendung der Pyschischen Curmethode auf Geisteszerrütungen (Rhapsodies on the Application of Psychological Methods of Cure to the Mentally Disturbed) by the German medical scientist Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813), who would later coin the term “psychiatry.” Beyond being the sadistic implement of animal cruelty which it might appear to modern eyes, the cat piano raises unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions about the relationship between music and noise, human and animal.
Text: La Nature, Vol. 11 (1883), 319-320
Images: La Nature, ibid.; Gaspar Schott, Magia Univeralis, Book II (1659); Franz van der Wyngaert, “La lecture du grimoire” (early 17th c.)