It is a story that is not to be put between all the legs. That of the cat organ (or piano) could well make your hair stand on end and your whiskers shiver. This strange and terrible instrument of feline torture, invented in the 16th century, would have made it possible to treat patients suffering from dementia. But did it really exist or is it (as we hope) an urban legend? We tell you more about the history of the cat organ.
Animal lovers (and cat lovers in particular) be warned, the following lines may offend your sensibilities. The cat organ, as it has been described in various works of the 16th and 17th centuries, is presented as a succession of cramped boxes in which poor cats are locked up. Each box – and each cat – was lined up according to the feline’s range. To complete the instrument of torture, the tails of the cats were wedged under a key of the organ or the piano corresponding to the tessitura of the feline.
The sequel is easy to guess. When the pianist played the instrument, the pressed key crushed the tail of his cat, which then uttered a painful meow. Other sources even mention a needle which, attached to the piano key, would prick the cat’s tail.
The invention of this instrument dates back to the middle of the 16th century and was used for the first time in Brussels, during a procession given on the day of the octave of the Ascension in honor of a miraculous image of the Virgin, attended by Charles-Quint and his son Philip II. According to Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, who tells this story in his New Musicianathe sight of this singular and no less cruel instrument would have cheered up Prince Philip II, who was not used to wearing a jovial air.
The first illustration of a cat organ was found in a late 16th century manuscript, theEmblemata saecularia: mira et iucunda varietate saeculi huius mores ita expentia ut sodalitatum symbolis written by Jean Théodore de Bry, German copperplate engraver and publisher.
Another element that contributed to the legend of this instrument of torture, it is said that a suffering Italian prince was miraculously cured at the sight of this terrible spectacle of the cat organ. This “therapeutic” dimension also gained momentum during the 19th century, with the theoretician Johann Christian Reil, who used the cat organ in one of his treatises on psychology to treat patients with mental disorders.
However, if we find the evocation of this cat organ in various works, there is no tangible proof that such an instrument was ever built and used – and we want to cling to this idea. .
A legend that recently inspired the short movie The cat pianoby Ari Gibson and Eddie White, released in 2009. The animated film immerses us in a town populated by musical and singing cats, threatened by a dark character who kidnaps the cats to create this famous “cat piano” and compose a symphony of cat meows.