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Composer's Best Friend

L-R: Starling, by Wolfgang Hasselman; St. Bernard, by Gian Asuncion; Siamese Cat, by Alex Bertman
L-R: Starling, by Wolfgang Hasselman; St. Bernard, by Gian Asuncion; Siamese Cat, by Alex Bertman

We all need companionship, especially these days, something composers and other musicians have known all along.

I sit by the family room picture window watching the February snow fall, my trusted friend, Doogie-the-Doggie, stretched out by my side. CRB Classical 99.5 is playing in the background.

This is a good time to tell you that Doogie sees my husband as “Alpha Dog.” They do manly things together – from hikes up mountains to trips to the transfer station. My son is his playmate, with every day containing endless games of fetch. Turns out Doog is also his “wing man,” as I’ve observed numerous examples of Doogie’s sweet tail-wagging disposition being a subtle excuse for young women to come over to meet them both.

Although Doogie and I also go on mini-hikes and play fetch, he sees me as the comfort giver. He seeks me out for quiet time belly rubs and snuggles. And snacks.  And always accompanied by CRB. That’s our “thing.”

There isn’t a month in the year that doesn’t have a day, days, week, or the entire month dedicated to cats, dogs or pets in general. February has at least 19 of them, including National Cat Health Month, Spay-Neuter Awareness Month, Dog Training Education Month, and Responsible Pet Owners Month. Fellow animal lovers will be happy to hear that many composers were “Responsible” pet people, too. I’ve gathered a bunch of composer-pet stories over the years and I thought you’d find these as fun as I did.

Mozart had a pet starling, whose first appearance we see in his expense book in 1784 with 5 bars of music, supposedly sung by the new pet. Mozart was over-the-top delighted when the starling sang the opening theme to his Piano Concerto No. 17. One version has Mozart actually teaching the music to the bird. Another has the bird mimicking the music Mozart played over and over as he composed, something starlings are known to do. Either way, the bird singing Mozart’s music endeared him quickly to the composer. When his beloved pet died three years later, Mozart invited people to attend a solemn funeral and procession and wrote and recited a poem-epitaph for his lost friend.

For a number of years, Chopin’s significant other was the novelist Amantine Dupin, best known by her pen name, George Sand. George’s pet dog Marquis was a lively little pooch that got along great with the pianist/composer. Chopin even referred to Marquis in a letter responding to George, saying “Please thank Marquis for missing me and sniffing at my door.” It turns out that his famous “Minute” Waltz was first titled “Valse du Petit Chien,” or “The Little Dog Waltz.” It was inspired by Chopin’s amusement at Marquis’ chasing of his own tail!

Then there’s the dog story involving two composers. Pianist and composer Dame Ethyl Smyth brought Marco, her large St. Bernard, to a rehearsal of a piece by Johannes Brahms, who happened to be there as well. All was going well until Marco got a little rambunctious and ran around the room, knocking over the music stand of the cellist. Dame Smyth was embarrassed, but Brahms assured her that he “loved dogs” and was fine with Marco being there.

How about one for cat fans? Ravel loved them and spoke often about his pets to any friends who would listen. He had a whole family of Siamese cats – as many as 7 at a time. He allowed them to climb all over him, his piano and his desk while he was working. He even said he could understand their language, and then he wrote a “meow duet” into his opera, L’enfant et les sortileges to honor his feline friends.

There are many other great composers-and-their-pets stories, and I’ll share more of them in a future post. In the meantime, I want to acknowledge Prince (the German Shepherd), Peachie (the Calico), Homer & Marge, (hamsters), and Rex (the horse) for listening to CRB all day and sending me mail recently about being loyal fans. Thanks for reaching out, and thanks for all you’ve done for your people, especially during this challenging past year. You’re “pawsitively” awesome. Oh, and Doogie says “Woof!” (“Hi!”)

Coda:  Since you now know the true story behind Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” give it another listen and try to picture him laughing as little Marquis chases his tail! Here’s Artur Rubenstein’s rendition:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.