In 1549, a huge pageant was held in Brussels in honour of the entry of King Phillip II of Spain into the city. The musical highlight of this spectacle was a moving float upon which a live bear played tunes on an organ. But it wasn’t just any organ. It was a cat organ, sometimes referred to by its German name the Katzenklavier.
The instrument the bear was playing consisted of twenty cats confined in narrow spaces so they could not move and with their tails sticking out. Their tails were attached to the organ keyboard by cords and the poor animals were arranged in order of the pitch of their meows. Every time the bear pressed a key, it pulled a cat’s tail, leading it to meow the desired note. Also on the float were live dancing monkeys and mechanical dancing wolves and deer.
But the cat organ was the star of the show. Even Philip II, not renowned for his sunny disposition, could not resist a smile at the spectacle.
The cat organ makes a few appearances in historical records. The strange story below is taken from the Halifax Comet of 16 September 1893.
In Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, mystery surrounded a run down garret on the east side of town. Strange and fearful noises were heard emanating from the building and many thought it was haunted by a dismal ghost. One day the caretaker was nearly scared to death when a dozen screaming hissing fiends shot past him in the dark. As the creatures escaped the building into the light, the caretaker realised they were black cats.
An intrepid reporter (whose name we are not given) decided to investigate the mystery, so he waited until dark and then climbed the stairs to the garret and waited. It wasn’t long before he heard a low mournful wailing sound that soon rose to such uncanny intensity that his hair stood on end.
He realised that the infernal howling was actually playing something that resembled a tune he knew: ‘Home Sweet Home’. Then the caterwauling seemed to play some Wagner and other ‘symphonies of a wild and weird nature’.
A light was coming from the keyhole, so the reporter knew there was someone home. He knocked on the door and eventually it was answered by a cruel looking old German man with an ashen face and long grey hair. He was wearing clothes that belonged in the previous century.
The old man suspiciously agreed to let the reporter in to see his ‘machine’ – the cat organ. The instrument resembled a church organ, but had several wooden stalls within each of which was a cat. In the bottom of each stall was a sharp pin attached to a keyboard, and as the inventor took his seat and ran his hands over the keys, strains of a Beethoven melody could be heard in the cats’ unsettling howling.
The inventor paused his playing and produced a jug of beer and some cheese for himself and some milk for the cats. He poured the milk into a trough that ran between the stalls so each cat could drink. Once he had succeeded in getting cats into the organ, the inventor said, he did not let them out again. The last time he had, they immediately turned on him in a ferocious assault nearly ripping him to pieces before fleeing to freedom (and terrifying the caretaker in the process).
As might be imagined, the inventor complained that it took a long time to arrange the cats in a scale according to the pitch of their meow.
A Cure for Madness
The article in the Halifax Comet seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s certainly thin when it comes to names and sources. But I think I may have identified the origins of this tall tale and who the mad scientist and inventor of the cat organ was based on.
Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813) was an influential German anatomist and psychiatrist. In fact, he invented the word ‘psychiatry’ (in German) and founded several scientific journals. In 1803 he published his oddly titled book Rhapsodies about applying the psychological method of treatment to mental breakdowns, an early classic of German psychiatry.
And this is where the cat organ comes in. He recommends it as a cure for madness. In particular, as a treatment for someone who is lacking in attention or in a constant reverie. This is how he described the instrument:
[The cats are] arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. 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.[i]
It’s not entirely clear if Reil was joking or being ironic. One of his other treatments was to dunk the unsuspecting madman into a tub of live eels![ii]
However, it seems likely to me that the odd story recounted in the Halifax Comet is based on, or is a dim recollection of, this odd German psychiatrist.
The whole idea of a cat organ seems rather implausible, and historians are not at all sure one was ever constructed or if the whole conceit was just a joke.[iii] You can imagine how hard it would be to secure enough cats into wooden boxes arranged into a musical scale if you’ve ever tried to get a cat into its carry case for a visit to the vet.
For more on musical cats, see my post about the amazing Cat Orchestra: https://paulweatherhead.com/2022/04/29/weird-musical-history-1-the-cat-orchestra/
[i] Robert J. Richards ‘Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano, or Johann Christian Reil and the Foundations of Romantic Psychiatry’, Critical Enquiry, Spring 1998, pp.700-701
[ii] Ibid p.721
[iii] Ibid p.722