Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

The history of the Katzenklavier, or cat piano

Cats have always been a focal point of human fascination, entertainment and mischief for millennia. Odds are that the latest "original" cat meme already had its 15 seconds of fame somewhere in the annals of history. One of the most popular cat videos on the web that keeps getting rediscovered by our adorable geriatric netizens is the Keyboard Cat from Santa Claus, Indiana.

How creative! How adorable! A cat playing a keyboard! Yet there is one cat meme of times long gone that hasn't been adapted into modern culture, possibly because of its questionably ethics . What if instead of a cat playing a keyboard, a keyboard played a cat?

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Take between seven to nine cats, arrange them in order of vocal tonality and line them up inside a box. Then take their tails and tuck them underneath the keys of a piano so that when the keys get stricken, they hammer down on the tails of the cats, causing them to yelp out in pain. The end result is a "musical" instrument known as a Katzenklavier, more commonly referred to as the cat piano or the cat organ.

Did this musical instrument actually exist, and if so, why? There is no physical evidence to suggest that a Katzenklavier was actually built and used, however there are some interesting references to this device that suggest its usage was purely medical. In his 1877 book Musiciana: Extraits D'Ouvrages Rares Ou Bizarres, Anecdotes, Lettres, Etc., Alsatian French composer and music publisher Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin hints at the oldest known reference to such a device being used.

When the King of Spain Felipe II was in Brussels in 1549 visiting his father the Emperor Charles V, each saw the other rejoicing at the sight of a completely singular procession...The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave... (chromatically, I think).

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There is some speculation as to the historical accuracy of Weckerlin's claim and whether this account was of his own fabrication. In fact, it is believed that Weckerlin's account may have been something of a folk legend. Fromt the same time period, a cat piano was also evidenced in a 1596 print by Johann Theodor de Bry, Emblemata Saecularia Mira et Lucunda, which is accompanied by a satiricle subtitle "There is no music sweeter to Midas's ears." This reinforces the suggestion that cat pianos were somewhat of a meme at that time. Although Weckerlin's example covers a historical period that predates any other cat piano reference, the eldest chronological recording of such a device came almost a century after the supposed Emperor Charles event.

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In 1650 German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher published Musurgia universalis, sive ars magna consoni et dissoni in two volumes. In these publications, Kircher laid out his musical theories and philosophies, such as the universe being proportional to the harmony of music. In his tomes he also included ideas and designs for peculiar musical instruments, one of which was a cat organ. Kircher's version was a little more extreme than previous historical references. His design had nails attached to the bottom of the keys in order to induce a more yowling effect from the cats. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Kircher actually built such a device. Regardless, Kircher is "officially" credited as the inventor of the Katzenklavier.

This archaic cat meme didn't take a turn from satire to the bizarre until early in the 19th century. In 1803 a book titled Rhapsodieen über die Anwendung der psychischen Kurmethode auf Geisteszerrüttungen was published by Johann Christian Reil, a German medical scientist and the guy who coined the term "psychiatry." In this book Reil discussed different ways in which the mentally disturbed could be cured. In particular, he theorized that the nailed Katzenklavier could be used to treat patients with a modern day equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder.

A fugue played on this instrument—when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expressions on their faces and the play of these animals—must bring Lot's wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.

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Reil never did build this instrument to test it out, but his theory still holds true to this day. Take any person who has lost focus and interest in you, sit them in front of a cat piano and then start playing. The results might surprise you.

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Today the legacy of the cat piano still exists, but the meme has done a full circle once more and gone back to its satirical roots. Aside from derivatives such as Keyboard Cat and Jingle Cats, the instrument was recently in the pop culture spotlight in 2009 when The People's Republic of Animation released an award winning animated short titled The Cat Piano. In the film, humans kidnap cat musicians from a cat city in order to create a Katzenklavier. Did I mention that this short won awards?

There are currently no known records of any attempt to create a functional cat piano for either satirical or psychiatric purposes. Let's keep it that way.

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Photo credits via Tate, MySpace, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe by Robert J. Richards, and The Guardian.

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