Music Composed In Honor of Our Furry Friends
More than two-thirds of households in the United States have a companion animal family member. That includes 38.4% of households having at least one canine and 25.4% of them having at least one cat! That's over 70 million pet-having households! This week, the first full week of June, is Pet Appreciation week, and with the pet industry growing to $99 billion in sales in 2021, it's clear that our pets bring us joy and we want to spoil them to show our appreciation for how they enrich our lives.
This bond between human and beast has inspired artists and musicians as long as humans have been creating art. The Cave Paintings at Lascaux, France dating from about 15,000 to 17,000 years ago depict mostly animal scenes and our earliest music was performed on bone flutes dating from about 57,000 years ago and inspired by birdsong. And, pets have inspired works of popular culture such as Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's (Sept. 18, 1844 – Jan. 13, 1934) now iconic "Dogs Playing Poker" series of oil paintings (see another one of Coolidge's dog-inspired canvases below) or the Beatles' song Martha, My Dear inspired by Paul McCartney's (b. June 18, 1942) English sheepdog, Martha. With all of the love we have for our pets and they have of us, it's no surprise that pets have inspired Western art composers as well. For Pet Appreciation Week, we are celebrating our furry family members by learning about three works of Western Art music inspired by pets as well as admire three pet inspired works of visual art.
1. Domenico Scarlatti's Fugue in G minor, K. 30, L. 499, "Cat's Fugue" (1739)
Domenico Scarlatti (Oct. 26, 1685 – July 23, 1757) was a prolific Italian composer born in Naples in the then kingdom of Naples. He is known for his service to the Spanish and the Portuguese Royal families and for his 555 keyboard sonatas. Although he was a baroque composer, his music was influenical on the emerging Classical style of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Scarlatti composed the Fugue in G minor in 1739 at the end of the Baroque period. It is a one-movement harpsichord work that is popularly known as the Cat's Fugue or in Italian: Fuga des Gatto. The nickname was never used by the composer and most likely originated in the early 19th century and was included in published versions including one edited by another gifted keyboard composer in his own right Muzio Clementi (Jan. 23, 1752 – March 10, 1832).
The subject is full of skips and leaps (pictured above in a published score from the 18th century) begins on the tonic of the g minor scale "G," then jumps to the mediant " B♭," then to the submediant "E♭," next to the leading tone of F#. This is followed by a large lead to B♭ and then up an augmented second to C# and reaches its climax at the dominant note at D and then descends down the g minor scale.
An apocryphal story attempts to explain how Scarlatti came up with such a jumpy subject. The legend says that Scarlatti had a pet cat, Pulcinella, who Scarlatti had said was fond of walking across the keyboard and was intrigued by the sounds of the notes. Usually Pulcinella's musical meanderings were random, noise, however, during one such "purr-formance" Scarlatti was so struck by the music that the kitty had stumbled upon that he grabbed his manuscript paper and pen and transcribed the melody. Then feeling inspired, Scarlatti continued to compose and wrote an entire fugue based around the cat's original phrase.
While many of Scarlatti's keyboard works are still performed today, the Fugue in G minor is one of most well-known. One of Scarlatti's contemporaries, German-born British composer George Frideric Handel (Feb. 23, 1685 – April 14, 1759) drew inspiration from the jumpy theme when composing the third work in his collection Concerti grossi, Op. 6.
Czech-born, Barvarian-educated, naturalized French Classical composer and lifelong friend of Beethoven Anton Reicha (Feb. 26, 1770 – May 28, 1836) wrote a fugue of his own based on the Cat Fugue's subject that was included in his 36 Fugues (1803) as No. 9: Theme of Domenico Scarlatti. German conductor and Romantic composer Hans von Bülow (Jan. 8, 1830 — Feb. 12, 1894) arranged the Cat Fugue for orchestra. It was a favorite keyboard work of Austro-Hungarian piano virtuoso and Romantic era composer Franz Liszt (Oct. 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) who revived interest in Scarlatti's works.
American Romantic composer Amy Beach (Sept. 5, 1867 – Dec. 27, 1944) was inspired to compose a feline-inspired work of her own and gave her Fantasia fugata, Op. 87 (1923) the inscription: "... the composer is indebted to 'Hamlet', a large black Angora who had been placed on the keyboard with the hope that he might emulate Scarlatti's cat and improvise a fugue theme."
Listen to the Cat Fugue and follow along with the score in the video below. Do you think it sounds as if it was inspired by a cat wandering across the keyboard? How does its subject compare to Beach's feline-inspired subject in the image above?
For Further Information on the "Cat Fugue"
2. Frédéric Chopin's Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, "The Valse Du Petit Chien" ("The Waltz of the Small Dog") a.k.a. "The Minute Waltz" (1847)
First we had a cat's fugue, now we have a dog's waltz.
Frédéric Chopin (March 1, 1810 – Oct. 17, 1849) was a Polish-French composer of Romantic music. He was born in Poland to a Polish mother and a French father. Although he left Poland for France as a young adult, he continued to be inspired by his Polish heritage and composed music influenced by Polish musical styles.
Chopin stands out among Romantic composers as he composed nothing that did not involve the piano. He also had a reputation for being an outstanding pianist although he only performed less than 30 times in his lifetime! Chopin's piano works are so seminal to the piano literature that the British Library notes that "Chopin's works have been recorded by all the great pianists of the recording era." And, nearly all piano students that advance to the intermediate level or beyond will play at least some of his solo piano works such as his four ballades, 24 préludes, 27 études, 21 nocturnes, 57 mazurkas, 23 polonaises, or 25 waltzes.
Like other Romantic composers, his music was often inspired strong emotions invoked by individual experiences. Chopin had a tumultuous relationship with Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (July 1, 1804 – June 8, 1876) known by her pen name of George Sand, a famous writer of their day and still considered one of the foremost writers of the Romantic era. Madame Sand owned a beloved small poodle named Marquis. According to legend, Chopin was inspired to compose the Waltz in D♭ Major, also known as "The Minute Waltz" or the "The Waltz of the Small Dog" in 1846 after watching Marquis chase his own tail and Sand suggesting he should use it to create a musical theme.
The waltz begins with a spinning motive that dizzyingly revolves around the fifth scale degree of A♭at a speedy molto vivace (very lively) tempo. Chopin indicates that the waltz should be played with the sustain pedal lifting with each measure as to not blur the melody, and he includes frequent use of dynamics which add to the excitement of the piece. Chopin composed the waltz in simple ternary form like many of his piano compositions. The A section is marked leggero meaning "light" and the B section sostenuto meaning "sustained." Like many ternary works, the A section consists of two themes that are separated by a double bar. The second phrase is built out of material derived from the first. Chopin calms the mood of the piece in the B section by taking the melody from running eighth notes to quarter and half note rhythms. Finally, the A section returns in a slightly modified form.
The Minute Waltz has continued to inspire musicians. Lyricist, Lan O'Kun (Jan. 13, 1932 – Jan. 9, 2020) created lyrics to go along with the Minute Waltz which were recorded by many vocalists including superstar Barbra Streisand (b. April 24, 1942) who included in on her 1966 album Color Me Barbra. A version was recorded by New Orleans rhythm and blues pianist James Booker (Dec. 17, 1939 – Nov. 8, 1983) and included on his 1976 album Junco Partner.
Listen to the piece and follow along with the score in the video below. Do you think the swirling melody is reminiscent of a dog chasing its tail? How do you feel that the ternary form creates the musical impression of a dog?
For Further Information on "The Waltz of the Small Dog" a.k.a. "The Minute Waltz"
Hinson, Maurice. The Pianist's Dictionary. Indiana University Press, 2004.
3. George Crumb's Mundus Canis: Five Humoresques for Guitar and Percussion, "A Dog's World"(1998)
Our first two featured pieces were both composed for soloists. Our third piece, Mundus Canis is for a duet, a guitarist and a percussionist. Also, while our first two pieces were inspired by one pet each, this work is inspired by many different dog family members that the composer had his long life.
George Crumb (Oct. 24, 1929 – Feb. 6, 2022) was an innovative American 20th/21st century composer known for incorporating extended techniques and effects in his compositions. His is also known for his visually stunning scores, one of which we looked this article on Augenmusik. Crumb received many awards and grants in his lifetime, including the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1968 for his orchestral suite, Echoes of Time and the River.
Crumb was a lifelong pet parent and had many dogs throughout his life. The collection was composed after a commission from guitarist and founder of Bridge Records David Starobin (b. Sept. 27, 1951). Starobin requested a small dance piece for solo guitar. Crumb took the commission and used it to honor several of his family dogs (many of which were dachshunds) through what he called "canine portraits." The work was performed by Starobin with Crumb performing the percussion. See them perform Fritz and hear Crumb talk about the piece and his dogs in the video above. The five sections are each named and inspired by the dogs' unique personalities. They are:
Tammy. Elegantly, somewhat freely
Heidel. Languido, un poco misterioso
Emma-Jean. Coquettish, poco animato, grazioso
Yoda. Prestissimo possibile
Tammy was a full-sized short-haired dachshund. Crumb described her as "ranging from nobility to capriciousness." He has the percussionist accompany the guitar with maracas reminiscent of the scurrying feet of the dog.
Fritzi was another dachshund. Crumb said he was "very active, impetuous, and irrepressible." Crumb illustrates Frtizi's frenetic personality calling for a very fast tempo and the guitarist to rap their knuckles on the guitar and having the percussionist add additional scraping, swiping, and tapping effects with a frame drum.
Heidel was Crumb's first dachshund who was named after the German city of Heidelberg/ She had long-hair and as Crumb described her a "philosophical disposition and confounding depths of personality." Crumb said she moved slowly and had a mysterious air about her like she had a secret life. Crumb adds mystery by having the guitarist play slides and pitch-bends and calls for a scraping sound to be made by the fingers on the strings. The percussionist adds to the mystery with a gongs creating eerie and surprising effects.
Emma-Jean was a black miniature dachshund who Crumb described as "a flirty little dog with rapid changes of mood." Crumb used tempo changes along with tense rhythmic figures to evoke Emma-Jean's capriciousness. The percussionist plays claves as well as a cymbal with soft strokes.
Yoda is the only non-dachshund honored in the collection. H was a "lively fluffy mixed breed" that Crumb and his wife adopted from an animal shelter in New York City. Crumb suggests the scamper of a small naughty bad with the percussionist's guiro and even concludes the piece with the performer humorously scolding the dog "Yoda! Yoda! Bad Dog!"
Listen to the piece and follow along with the score in the video below. Do you think the Crumb successfully evokes the personality of each dog? How does the use of percussion and guitar techniques add to each canine portrait?
For Further Information on "Mundus Canis: Five Humoresques for Guitar and Percussion, "A Dog's World"
Create Your Own Animal-Friend-Inspired Piece
I challenge you to create your own musical homage to an animal that has touched your life. This could be a beloved pet, a zoo animal you have observed, or wildlife in your daily life, such as the birds or squirrels in your neighborhood. How can you musically depict them? You may wish to use samples of recorded audio of animals, add vocals, or include extended techniques. Feel free to share your work with me by emailing email@example.com or by tagging @PerennialMusicAndArts on Instagram or TikTok or @PerennialArts on Twitter.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.