Classical Cats: The Feline Muses of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel

The Piano Lesson by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip, 1897.
The Piano Lesson by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip, 1897.

One does not have to be a fan of classical music to be familiar with the works of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  The two rivals were part of the Impressionism movement in classical music, a movement inspired by Impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, and Renoir and poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire.  They were also renowned cat lovers who famously allowed their feline muses to prowl at liberty amongst their papers while composing such masterpieces as Clair de Lune and Boléro

Maurice Ravel with his Siamese cat, Mouni, at Belvedere in 1929.
Maurice Ravel with his Siamese cat, Mouni, at Belvedere, 1929.

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875.  He spent much of his life in Paris where he lived in a villa with his mother and his pets.  He is often described as an “extraordinary” cat lover.  It is not clear how many cats he owned at one time, however, in his 2008 book The Classical Music Experience, author Julius Jacobson writes:

“Apparently, he went a bit overboard with the cats, allowing them to invade his worktable, speaking to them in cat language, playing with them ceaselessly, and filling letters to his friends with their details.”

Ravel had a particular fondness for Siamese cats and in her 1995 book The Gift of Music, author Jane Smith reports that, upon first moving to his villa, Belvedere, Ravel “shared his quarters” with a Siamese cat family.  Smith states:

“He not only understood cats—he could speak their language.”

Maurice Ravel on the Piano, 1912.
Maurice Ravel on the Piano, 1912.

Born on August 22, 1862, Claude Debussy was over a decade older than Maurice Ravel.  Unlike his younger rival, he preferred long-haired Angora cats to sleek Siamese.  In fact, according to biographer Victor Seroff:

“Debussy’s cats were always Angora and always were called the same name, which they inherited from each other.”

Claude Debussy, 1900.
Claude Debussy, 1900.

Like Ravel, Debussy allowed his cats to meander through his workspace.  As Seroff writes:

“[Debussy’s cats] tiptoed, as usual, through a mass of papers on Debussy’s desk, while he was working.”

Another biographer, Eric Jensen, states that Debussy’s two cats were granted “unusual favors,” including:

“…being permitted to lounge solemnly on the desk and if they so wished, to sow disorder among the pencils.”

Debussy’s human relationships were often complicated and tumultuous.  Though he married twice and fathered a child, Smith states that:

“He cared little for people, preferring cats to human beings.”

Claude Debussy at the Piano in front of composer Ernest Chausson, 1893.

Debussy died on March 25, 1918 at the age of fifty-five.  Ravel died on December 28, 1937 at the age of sixty-two.  I can find no definitive evidence that their cats inspired their work.  Still, I cannot help but wonder what role those cats might have played in the creation of such masterpieces as Clair de Lune and Boléro?  Were they merely the pets of two of the greatest composers of all time?  Or did they act the part of muse?  As someone who does her best writing with a cat curled up beside her and a dog at her feet, I am inclined to believe the latter.  What do you think?

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you would like to help a cat in need, either by providing a home or by donating your time or money, the following links may be useful as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Apel, Willi.  Harvard Dictionary of Music.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Goulding, Phil G.  Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Jacobson, Julius H.  The Classical Music Experience.  Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2008.

Jensen, Eric Frederick.  Debussy.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Seroff, Victor.  Debussy; Musician of France.  New York: G. P. Putnam, 1956.

Smith, Jane Stuart.  The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence.  Illinois: Crossway Books, 1995.

COMING SOON
One of BookBub’s “25 of the Best Books Arriving in 2021”

John Eyre
A Tale of Darkness and Shadow

From USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews comes a supernatural Victorian gothic retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s timeless classic.

Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he’s ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John’s new employer–a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.

Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn’t on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she’s powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly-disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn’t quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.

From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?

Find out more or Read an Excerpt

Pre-Order Today

ebook: $3.99 $4,99

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple | Google

Advance Praise for John Eyre

“In this thrilling remix of Charlotte Brontë’s work, Matthews skillfully transforms a well-known story into a truly original tale.” -Kirkus Reviews

“Bertha Mason Rochester shines, dominating her scenes with vitality and strength.” -Publishers Weekly

“[Matthews] retells Charlotte Bronte’s classic story in a way that will keep fans of the original novel totally gripped from cover to cover… Fresh and dynamic… Fast-paced and spellbinding…a book you will have a hard time putting down.” -Readers Favorite

“One of the most moving, suspenseful, innovative and remarkable retellings of a classic in the history of, well, ever… Every page is sheer rapture as [Matthews] moulds popular source material into a spell-binding creation so wholly her own.” -Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration

“A wonderful sinister atmosphere, deliciously creepy characters, and a female character who is a powerful force… A true homage to the gothic genre without being derivative… Highly, highly recommended!” -Clarissa Harwood, author of Impossible Saints


© 2015-2021 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.

You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
Privacy Policy Consent
20 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago

Ah, the Mewsic of DePussy…. My cats like Ravel’s Bolero, less fond of Debussy’s work. They are also fans of Fauré, was he a cat lover? cats are very receptive to music, I have to whistle Fauré’s Sicilienne when I go to bed, and they all trot into the bedroom and put themselves into their accustomed places . Worrals won’t come without her music, and when I whistle it, she squiggles under the duvet and goes to sleep in my arms. And I speak cat too, and they help me write. Which as I write to pay for their food… Read more »

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

They really do recognize different pieces of music! And I agree, it’s only fair that they act as your muse since your writing keeps them in cat food :)

CynthiaBaileyRug
CynthiaBaileyRug
5 years ago

More proof- cats are wonderful & magical :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago

They really are, Cynthia :)

CynthiaBaileyRug
CynthiaBaileyRug
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

Absolutely. :) I have 10 & adore every single one of them for their quirky ways & loving hearts. Not sure how people live without a cat or two in their lives!

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

Purrr-fect! :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah :)

Anine Burlingame
Anine Burlingame
5 years ago

Another great article. Both men are favorites. A beautiful time in the artistic community. I play the cello and always had my cats trying to grab my cello bow while playing…still would never think of excluding them from being present. As Sarah said Purr-fect!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago

Thanks so much, Anine:) I agree, the impressionist period really was a beautiful time in art & music!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
5 years ago

Sorry but I don’t have a cat or dog currently due to my current living situation. However, I do believe they can be a writer, books or music, muse.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago

I think so too, Lindsay :) I hope things will change so you can have another pet someday soon!

Pam
Pam
5 years ago

I play the piano and when I’m sitting on the bench playing, Lily, my mini schnauzer always jumps up to sit beside me. Like Debussey, I often find myself preferring the company of our three dogs and four cats to humans.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Pam

What a nice image of Lily at the piano :) My current pets don’t like my piano so much, but in the past I’ve had cats that loved to bang on the keys!

Vickie
Vickie
5 years ago

Ohh Mimi – the beauty of the music and the mystery of cats – such a combination. There is of course something magical about cats and you can understand why creative people love them so much…

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Vickie

I agree, Vickie :) Pets of all types seem to act as a conduit for creativity – at least in my personal experience and from what I’ve read of historical writers & artists who kept their pets near as they wrote/painted/composed.

lauriebrown54
lauriebrown54
5 years ago

My cats don’t seem to help me when I’m writing, other than to lay beside me at times, they do always assist when I am doing needlework! They inspire me to keep things put away lest they swallow a needle or something. I do not see how anyone can *not* love cats!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  lauriebrown54

I love that your cats assist with your needlework :) I hate to think what damage my own would cause!

authorangelabell
authorangelabell
5 years ago

I’ve noticed that many artists (musicians, painters, authors like myself, etc.) seem to have quite the fancy for cats. Perhaps the curious and mischievous nature of feline friends feeds our creativity! :-)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago

I think you’re right, Angela :)

Kevin
Kevin
6 months ago

Thanks for the excellent article! Sharing a birthday with Debussy and knowing of his fascination with cats, I opened a book about famous cats and searched for ‘Debussy’. When nothing turned up, I googled ‘Debussy name of cat’ and arrived here. Cheers!

Our website uses cookies which may collect information about your visit to improve our website (anonymous analytics), to show you media (video and audio), targeted advertising, and social media feeds. Please see our Cookie Policy page for further details or agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.

Cookie settings

Below you can choose which kind of cookies you allow on this website. Click on the "Save cookie settings" button to apply your choice.

FunctionalOur website uses functional cookies. These cookies are necessary to let our website work.

AnalyticalOur website uses analytical cookies to make it possible to analyze our website and optimize for the purpose of a.o. the usability.

Social mediaOur website places social media cookies to show you 3rd party content like YouTube and FaceBook. These cookies may track your personal data.

AdvertisingOur website places advertising cookies to show you 3rd party advertisements based on your interests. These cookies may track your personal data.

OtherOur website places 3rd party cookies from other 3rd party services which aren't Analytical, Social media or Advertising.