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 author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  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 November 2017

The Pug Who Bit Napoleon:
Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries

From elaborate Victorian cat funerals to a Regency era pony who took a ride in a hot air balloon, Mimi Matthews shares some of the quirkiest and most poignant animal tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Find out more…

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19 Comments on "Classical Cats: The Feline Muses of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel"

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Sarah Waldock
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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
Guest

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
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More proof- cats are wonderful & magical :)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

They really are, Cynthia :)

CynthiaBaileyRug
Guest

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
Guest

Purrr-fect! :)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah :)

Anine Burlingame
Guest

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
Guest

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

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Guest

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
Guest

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

Pam
Guest

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
Guest

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
Guest

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
Guest

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
Guest

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
Guest

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

authorangelabell
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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
Guest

I think you’re right, Angela :)

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