Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

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.”

debussy at the piano in front of the composer ernest chausson 1893

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)


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.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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