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19 January 2021, 16:28 | Updated: 19 January 2021, 17:10
A viral tweet recalls a wonderful anecdote, written into classical music lore, that when Mozart grew bored in opera rehearsals, he would start miaowing and acting like a cat. Fur real...
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote some of the most wonderful melodies in the history of music.
He was also, in many ways, a bit of a fruitcake.
A well-known extrovert with a penchant for champagne, Mozart was known among friends for always having a glass of punch in his hand. He also kept a pet starling, was fond of a good fart joke (more about that in Classic FM’s podcast featuring David Walliams here) and had a bit of a potty mouth.
And among other childlike behaviours – as it goes down in legendary classical music lore – Mozart liked to imitate cats.
This lovely little anecdote has been floating around since the 19th century. Karoline von Greiner Pichler, an Austrian novelist and former student of Mozart, describes her teacher in her 1843 memoirs, quoted in Otto Deutsch’s Mozart: A Documentary Biography.
“One day when I was sitting at the pianoforte playing the ‘Non più andrai’ from [The Marriage of] Figaro, Mozart, who was paying a visit to us, came up behind me.
“I must have been playing it to his satisfaction, for he hummed the melody as I played and beat the time on my shoulders; but then he suddenly moved a chair up, sat down, told me to carry on playing the bass, and began to improvise such wonderfully beautiful variations that everyone listened to the tones of the German Orpheus with bated breath,” Pichler is quoted by Deutsch.
And here’s where it comes...
Pichler’s account continues: “But then he suddenly tired of it, jumped up, and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, he began to leap over tables and chairs, miaow like a cat, and turn somersaults like an unruly boy.”
The extraordinary story popped up again in 2016 in an article by journalist Helena Hon, The Nuttiest Composers of All Time, which cited Mozart’s “low boredom threshold”.
A now-viral tweet from 18 January, with more than 3,700 likes and 460 retweets (see below), quotes the article:
“He’d be rehearsing an opera with his singers, when he’d suddenly grow bored and leap over tables and chairs, meowing and turning somersaults.”
So just your run-of-the-mill, post-pub rehearsal, then. It’s no wonder musicians get a reputation for being eccentric beings…
In her article, Hon continues: “He even wrote a comic song in which a woman responds to her husband’s questions with nothing but meows, until the poor man has no choice but to break down and meow, too. In English, the song is known as ‘The Cat Duet’.”
She’s not wrong. The duet – ‘Nun liebes Weibchen’ in its original German – has been popularly attributed to Mozart by classical record labels and interpreted by some of today’s singing greats.
Here are Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and Swedish soprano Miah Persson, performing it with the wonderful humour and eccentricity it deserves as both vocal parts descend gradually into miaows.
Growing up as a child prodigy clearly had some peculiar effects on the adult Mozart.
The young Austrian spent his early years composing and performing for rich patrons, and dazzling royalty with his prodigious playing, all under the shepherding of his father, Leopold Mozart, who had uncommonly ambitious musical dreams for his children.
It’s been postulated that Mozart, thrust into the spotlight at his tender age, perhaps longed as an adult for the childhood he never really had.
So, when you next listen to his elegant Sonata facile or perhaps the heart wrenching ‘Lacrimosa’ from his Requiem, forget the 18th-century musical genius who was forever thinking about music.
Instead, think of Mozart the man – the life of the party who, in his moments of letting loose, miaowed, swished his tail and giggled away at potty jokes at the back of the concert hall. It certainly paints his music with a new brush...