Pets, Pets, Pets
Ketzel, a tuxedo cat always dressed for a concert, died this month at the age of 19. She accomplished more than most cats can in nine lives. A pet prodigy, Ketzel won a prize for a piano composition in 1997, was mentioned in a book about classical music and received royalty checks whenever her masterpiece was performed.
Ketzel which means “little cat” in Yiddish fine-tuned her ear as a kitten. She resided on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the family of the late Morris Moshe Cotel, who retired as chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory in 2000. He later became a rabbi. Cotel died in 2008.
Ketzel was accustomed to listening to music from great masters such as Bach and Beethoven. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, even cats know that. Ketzel was only five when she became a creative copycat. According to Ketzel’s 7/18/11 obituary in the New York Times, one morning while Professor Cotel was playing a Bach warm-up exercise, the muse - or should we say, “mews” - struck Ketzel.
The cat landed on her owner’s Baldwin piano and began to pounce on the keyboard, producing notes in sequence that the professor realized had a beginning, middle and end. He quickly began transcribing them because he was impressed by their “structural elegance.” Then he set the music aside until he learned of the Paris New Music Review One- Minute Competition, open to pieces no more than 60 seconds long. He didn’t have any work that short from his students so he sent in the piece by Ketzel which he titled Piece for Piano, Four Paws. If new, even Chopin’s Minute Waltz wouldn’t qualify for this contest. It took Arthur Rubinstein one minute and 48 seconds to zip through it.
Cotel revealed the feline composer in the entry but the judges were only shown the music. Ketzel’s work won a special mention. One judge said the piece reminded him of Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945), known for his short atonal compositions. Webern’s entire body of work would take a little more than three hours of performance time. Of his 75 published pieces, some are less than two minutes in length. Still, Webern had a profound impact on the modern musical world. In comparison, Ketzel’s “symphony” lasts 39 seconds. Her composing career was short and sweet.
Intermission - or should we say “Intermezzo” - stop reading. Go to your computer, Google “Ketzel” along with “NY Times” or “The Jewish Standard”. Listen to the feline virtuoso, and then go to YouTube.com and search for “Anton Webern, Piano Variations” and play the first movement for about the same amount of time. Hear the similarity? Oh, no, is this plagiarism? Could Ketzel have been accused, just like George Harrison was accused of stealing the He’s so Fine melody when he penned My Sweet Lord. Oh, I forgot - cats are immune from prosecution. This week’s panic is over.
Back to our regularly scheduled column: Although Ketzel turned out to be a one-hit wonder, her legacy has been enjoyed by audiences worldwide. You can hear Ketzel’s composition on the CD entitled Purrfectly Classical. It is a collection of music dedicated to cats. She is also featured in the 2007 book, The World of Women in Classical Music by Dr. Anne K. Gray about “talented women who defied limiting social conventions to forge a path for themselves and future generations”. Yes, Ketzel did open the door for other female felines, like Nora, the piano-playing internet sensation. Nora has a preference for Bach too.
The Ketzel concert premiere was at the Peabody in Baltimore in 1998, and Piece for Piano, Four Paws was later performed in Europe and on public radio. Her first royalty check made out to “Ketzel Cotel” for “$19.72 arrived from Rotterdam. It bought some yummy cat treats. When Ketzel’s work debuted at the Museum of the City of New York, the feline artist was in attendance. As her name was announced on the stage, she answered with a “Yeowwww” from her carrier in the back row since it is difficult for a cat to stand up and take a bow.
All this brings us to the question of pets and musicality. Musical talent does seem to run in families. Our pets are adopted or purchased so shared genes are not the key; unless, of course, we are discussing the soprano ranges of Siamese cats and Siberian Huskies. They are the vocal divas of the domestic animal kingdom. Both cat prodigies Ketzel and Nora belonged to piano teachers. The keyboard as a tempting cat toy was ever present, plus their guardians would encourage any feline overtures toward composition.
How many more pets have untapped talents because they live with non-musicians? In 1981 my brother adopted Morgan, a Lhasa from Babylon Shelter who would sing along with the final Jeopardy jingle each day. We just thought it was funny. We never took him to a voice coach. What if Morgan had belonged to my uncle, a saxophonist who played with the Big Bands of Lester Lanin and Mike Riley? Uncle Vinnie had a fabulous rapport with dogs. Although none of his Poodles could harmonize, he might have been able to turn Morgan into a Lhasa lounge singer.
** Public Hearing for Suffolk residents who want to stop puppy mill sales: Puppy mills breed misery. Leg.
Jon Cooper has proposed a resolution that would ban the sale of puppies in retail stores in the County unless the puppies are obtained from animal shelters, rescue organizations or local breeders. This is a step in the right direction because so many store puppies are shipped from out of state factory farms where horrific conditions are rampant. The public hearing will be held at the Legislative Building in Hauppauge on Aug. 2 at 6:30 pm. If you can’t attend, please contact your legislators and ask them to support Resolution 1545-2011. For more info, Leg. Cooper’s office is 631-845-4500.
For Adoption from Babylon Town Shelter (631- 643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Chestnut” the Shepherd mix #94237 is an oldie but goodie. Found as a stray, this fellow has a grey muzzle but shiny teeth. He was ultra-appreciative when we brushed out undercoat that filled two garbage cans. “Skipster” the Pomeranian #94257 was found in Wheatley Heights. About 5-6 years old Skipster loves to give kisses.
Cats: “Sparkles”-muted calico; “Goya” –tux like Ketzel; “Puddles” the tabby.
New Dogs: “Puchi”-Beagle pup-10 months old, female Maltese.