Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Designed to Treat Mental Illness

What do you imag­ine when you hear the phrase “cat piano”? Some kind of whim­si­cal fur­ry beast with black and white keys for teeth, maybe? A rel­a­tive of My Neigh­bor Totoro’s cat bus? Or maybe you pic­ture a piano that con­tains sev­er­al caged cats who shriek along an entire scale when keys are pressed that slam sharp­ened nails into their tails. If this is your answer, you might find peo­ple slow­ly back­ing away from you at times, or gen­tly sug­gest­ing you get some psy­chi­atric help.

But then, imag­ine that such a per­verse odd­i­ty was in use by psy­chi­a­trists, like the 18th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man physi­cian Johann Chris­t­ian Reil, who—reports David McNamee at The Guardian—“wrote that the device was intend­ed to shake men­tal patients who had lost the abil­i­ty to focus out of a ‘fixed state’ and into ‘con­scious aware­ness.’”

So long, meds. See you, med­i­ta­tion and man­dala col­or­ing books.… I joke, but appar­ent­ly Dr. Reil was in earnest when he wrote in an 1803 man­u­al for the treat­ment of men­tal ill­ness that patients could “be placed so that they are sit­ting in direct view of the cat’s expres­sions when the psy­chi­a­trist plays a fugue.”

A baf­fling­ly cru­el and non­sen­si­cal exper­i­ment, and we might rejoice to know it prob­a­bly nev­er took place. But the bizarre idea of the cat piano, or Katzen­klavier, did not spring from the weird delu­sions of one sadis­tic psy­chi­a­trist. It was sup­pos­ed­ly invent­ed by Ger­man poly­math and Jesuit schol­ar Athana­sius Kircher (1602–1680), who has been called “the last Renais­sance man” and who made pio­neer­ing dis­cov­er­ies in the fields of micro­bi­ol­o­gy, geol­o­gy, and com­par­a­tive reli­gion. He was a seri­ous schol­ar and a man of sci­ence. Maybe the Katzen­klavier was intend­ed as a sick joke that oth­ers took seriously—and for a very long time at that. The illus­tra­tion of a Katzen­klavier above dates from 1667, the one below from 1883.

Kircher’s biog­ra­ph­er John Glassie admits that, for all his undoubt­ed bril­liance, sev­er­al of his “actu­al ideas today seem wild­ly off-base; if not sim­ply bizarre” as well as “inad­ver­tent­ly amus­ing, right, wrong, half-right, half-baked, ridicu­lous….” You get the idea. He was an eccen­tric, not a psy­chopath. McNamee points to oth­er, like­ly apoc­ryphal, sto­ries in which cats were sup­pos­ed­ly used as instru­ments. Per­haps, cru­el as it seems to us, the cat piano seemed no cru­eller in pre­vi­ous cen­turies than the way we taunt our cats today to make them per­form for ani­mat­ed GIFs.

But to the cats these dis­tinc­tions are mean­ing­less. From their point of view, there is no oth­er way to describe the Katzen­klavier than as a sin­is­ter, ter­ri­fy­ing tor­ture device, and those who might use it as mon­strous vil­lains. Per­son­al­ly I’d like to give cats the last word on the sub­ject of the Katzen­klavier—or at least a few fic­tion­al ani­mat­ed, walk­ing, talk­ing, singing cats. Watch the short ani­ma­tion at the top, in which Nick Cave reads a poem by Eddie White about tal­ent­ed cat singers who mys­te­ri­ous­ly go miss­ing, scooped up by a human for a “harp­si­chord of harm, the cru­elest instru­ment to spawn from man’s gray cere­bral soup.” The sto­ry has all the dread and intrigue of Edgar Allan Poe’s best work, and it is in such a milieu of goth­ic hor­ror that the Katzen­klavier belongs.

The Cat Piano nar­rat­ed by Nick Cave will be added to our list of Free Ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our meta col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explo­sive Cats Imag­ined in a Strange, 16th Cen­tu­ry Mil­i­tary Man­u­al

Thomas Edison’s Box­ing Cats (1894), or Where the LOL­Cats All Began

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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