The Katzenklavier: An Organ Made of Cats

Alamy
Alamy

Long before the wonders of keyboard cat, felines and music had a tense relationship. The two were tied by an infernal instrument—the katzenklavier, or cat organ.

Imagine a row of eight cats tightly packed in individual cages, wedged along a keyboard. Their tails are pinned down and pulled taut. With the touch of a key, a mechanism slams a nail down into the cat’s tail. So when a keyboardist plays a tune, the cats—which are arranged according to the pitches of their meows—yowl together in pain, crying out in musical harmony.

IMPURRFECT ORIGINS

Historians aren’t sure when the cruel kitty keyboard was invented. Many credit Athanasius Kircher with the original design. A German Jesuit scholar, Kircher wrote about the instrument in 1650, saying it was made for a mopey monarch:

"In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano. The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike in the appropriate cat’s tail. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could help but laugh at such music? Thus the prince was raised from his melancholy."

If true, this wasn’t Kircher’s only fling with animal-made music. He was good friends with Gaspar Schott, a Jesuit who allegedly once tried assembling a chorus of donkeys.

Kircher was a scientific superstar, too. He invented the Aeolian harp and the magnetic clock—and was one of the first people to propose that germs caused the bubonic plague. But contrary to common lore, he probably didn’t invent the cat organ. Accounts of the instrument existed before Kircher was born. In the 16th century, historian Juan Calvete de Estrella described seeing one when King Phillip II processed into Brussels. The parade was rowdy, and it included a cat organ played by a chariot-riding bear.

Yes. A bear.

French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerline described the scene:

"The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano ... the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow"

FOR SCIENCE!

In 1803, German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil (who coined the word “psychiatry”) trumpeted the katzenklavier’s medical potential.  Reil suggested the cat organ could help chronic daydreamers snap back to reality. He said that a “fugue played on this instrument—when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals—must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.”

Basically, Reil believed the katzenklavier was the only thing crazy enough to grab the attention of crazy people.

Despite all these historical records, scholars are unsure whether anyone ever built a katzenklavier for real. It was likely just a hypothetical instrument. (It would have made terrible music anyway. Cats don’t meow on a fixed pitch.)

We are sure, however, of the existence of the katzenklavier’s cousin: the pig organ. In the 15th century, King Louis XI of France ordered Abbot de Beigne to create a “concert of swine’s voices.” Obliging, the abbot built a crude keyboard made of live pigs, which jabbed spikes into the rumps of squealing swine. A similar instrument—the porko-forte—was designed in Cincinnati 400 years later.

As for the cat organ, if you want to hear a humane model, listen to Henry Dagg’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” In 2010, the sound sculptor crafted a modern katzenklavier from 16 kitty squeaky toys.

This piece originally ran in 2013.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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