These Cats May Have Inspired Composers Claude Debussy And Maurice Ravel

by Mimi Matthews

The Piano Lesson by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip, 1897

One does not have to be a fan of classical music to be familiar with the works of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The two rivals were part of the Impressionism movement in classical music, a movement inspired by Impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, and Renoir and poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire. They were also renowned cat lovers who famously allowed their feline muses to prowl at liberty amongst their papers while composing such masterpieces as “Clair de Lune” and “Boléro.”

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875. He spent much of his life in Paris where he lived in a villa with his mother and his pets. He is often described as an “extraordinary” cat lover. It is not clear how many cats he owned at one time, however, in his 2008 book The Classical Music Experience, author Julius Jacobson writes:

“Apparently, he went a bit overboard with the cats, allowing them to invade his worktable, speaking to them in cat language, playing with them ceaselessly, and filling letters to his friends with their details.”

maurice ravel and siamese cat early 20th centuryMaurice Ravel with his Siamese cat, Mouni, at Belvedere, 1929

Ravel had a particular fondness for Siamese cats and in her 1995 book The Gift of Music, author Jane Smith reports that, upon first moving to his villa, Belvedere, Ravel “shared his quarters” with a Siamese cat family. Smith states:

“He not only understood cats—he could speak their language.”

maurice ravel on the piano 1912Maurice Ravel on the Piano, 1912

Born on August 22, 1862, Claude Debussy was over a decade older than Maurice Ravel. Unlike his younger rival, he preferred long-haired Angora cats to sleek Siamese. In fact, according to biographer Victor Seroff:

“Debussy’s cats were always Angora and always were called the same name, which they inherited from each other.”

Like Ravel, Debussy allowed his cats to meander through his workspace. As Seroff writes:

“[Debussy’s cats] tiptoed, as usual, through a mass of papers on Debussy’s desk, while he was working.”

portrait of composer claude a debussy 1900Claude Debussy, 1900

Another biographer, Eric Jensen, states that Debussy’s two cats were granted “unusual favors,” including:

“…being permitted to lounge solemnly on the desk and if they so wished, to sow disorder among the pencils.”

Debussy’s human relationships were often complicated and tumultuous. Though he married twice and fathered a child, Smith states that:

“He cared little for people, preferring cats to human beings.”

debussy at the piano in front of the composer ernest chausson 1893Claude Debussy at the Piano in front of composer Ernest Chausson, 1893

Debussy died on March 25, 1918 at the age of fifty-five. Ravel died on December 28, 1937 at the age of sixty-two. I can find no definitive evidence that their cats inspired their work. Still, I cannot help but wonder what role those cats might have played in the creation of such masterpieces as Clair de Lune and Boléro? Were they merely the pets of two of the greatest composers of all time? Or did they act the part of muse? As someone who does her best writing with a cat curled up beside her and a dog at her feet, I am inclined to believe the latter. What do you think?

This post originally appeared on and has been reprinted with permission.

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