Birthday song—pour moi

A reader and a German/French friend in Berlin, a professional harpsichordist, made me a special “music video” for my birthday—and I forgot to post it! Fortunately, the music, unlike Professor Ceiling Cat, is ageless. Her description of the song and the performance follow:

This Birthday Music for you is by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). Scarlatti had a cat! At least one there is evidence for, in the form of a fugue entitled “The Cat’s Fugue,” which he composed on the theme of a few notes that his cat happened to hit as it was doing its nonchalant walk across the keyboard. That piece is a bit morose, though, which is why I chose another more joyous sonata in D-major for this glorious occasion.

You can imagine the scene: Scarlatti is in a good mood, developing a very happy melody for Ceiling Cats’s birthday. His little kitten distracts him, perching on the bench next to him and hitting some random keys. Scarlatti is irritated at first, then pleads for it to sit quietly, but to no avail. Finally he gives into playing music together with his little feline, thus achieving no purrfection but complete and utter joy: C’est la joie de vivre!

Most harpsichord music was written in the Baroque era in Europe (17th and 18th century). The instrument I use in this iPad recording is a 1993 copy of a Ruckers/Taskin model (17/18th century) by a builder named Sebastian Nunez (Utrecht). Mr Nunez, who is also a very fine builder of lutes, asked me what animals I wished for on the soundboard. “Cats!” For whatever reason, that was not possible, but you might find other animals on there that you like. [JAC: see if you can spot the insect.]

We harpsichordists seek to play with “cat paws”. Have you ever watched a cat retracting its paw from the ground? It’s that suppleness of “paws” that we must strive for in our work. As a result, all harpsichordists are worshippers of the Ceiling Cat!!! And it is in their name that I very humbly submit this Birthday Music to you.

Be sure you listen to the very end!

Professor Ceiling Cat is pleased.


  1. Charles Jones
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece!

  2. Posted January 12, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink


    The harpsichord is, in many ways, a superior instrument to the piano. This performance is an excellent example why.

    Oh — and there’s clearly at least a couple cats painted on the soundboard. They’re just very, very good at not being seen, is all!



  3. RFW
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    That is a mighty fine birthday present!

    Happy birthday, JAC.

    For those unfamiliar with Scarlatti: he wrote over five hundred sonatas for harpshichord; they’re all short pieces, but in aggregate occupy over thirty compact discs. The first complete recording was made by Scott Ross for Erato, drawn from weekly broadcasts by Radio France; this set is still available, though with reduced documentation.

    One can criticize Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas as being “wallpaper music” in that they all sound about the same, but with patience and attentive listening, you’ll soon penetrate through the sonic surface and reach the infinite variety of music making they represent.

    • Posted January 12, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the craftsmanship in Scarlatti’s music is exemplary.

      Literally. Domenico Scarlatti is one of the composers Heinrich Schenker regularly turned to to provide examples of “doing something right” in music.

  4. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    This is one of my favorite Scarlatti sonatas. I have only piano recordings, and, for those of you who are interested, I like the two CDs (different labels) by Anthony di Bonaventura. Maria Tipo has a nice recording too.

  5. Yofi
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    What an amazing birthday present! What fabulous playing! What a good meow! How can anything be better than this? You are a lucky person, Professor Coyne.

  6. rodgerma
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Happy birthday!
    And thanks for sharing the music with the classic Meow conclusion.

  7. Posted January 12, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    True to my nature, I at once spotted and approximately identified the insect.

    • Achrachno
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      Damsel fly?

  8. M Janello
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Excellent playing!

    (From another harpsichordist and fan of Jerry’s!)

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Lovely! I really like harpsichords & the ending was fantastic!

  10. Posted January 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Lovely Scarlatti piece and interpretation, and a beautiful harpsichord. The damsel was easy to find. 😀

  11. Taskin
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Not only does playing Scarlatti require cat-like hands, it requires a cat’s poise and timing for the pounce; both qualities this performance has in spades! I suspect this is a harpsichordist who has spent a good deal of time observing felines.

    • Yofi
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm…sounds like my old friend. I suspect that is you, just from the phrasing on the screen.

      • Taskin
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        And here I thought my nickname would be safely meaningless on an evolutionary biologists’ website. Who knew there would be so many of my kind lurking about!

        • Yofi
          Posted January 13, 2014 at 12:38 am | Permalink

          Well, I watch this site too, and my secret name is Blanchet. We are lurking, everywhere!

  12. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t there a manuscript of some (fairly) famous composer’s piece (I’m showing my lack of musical interest that I can’t remember what they’re called …), which has an inky feline pawprint in the middle of one page?
    “Score” – that’s the word that had slipped my mind. As in the old injunction to “don’t pay more / than twenty a score”.

  13. Nullifidian
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Happy birthday!

    Another composer who loved cats is the quite unjustly neglected Humphrey Searle, who studied with Anton Webern and, with Elisabeth Lutyens, was one of Britain’s first serialists. He wrote at least three works because of his love for cats: The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and Two Practical Cats (based on Edward Lear and T. S. Eliot respectively, both pieces scored for speaker, flute, cello, and guitar) and Cat Variations (based on the cat’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The last named piece is available here.

    There’s also a Medieval German cat piece from the Glogauer Liederbuch called Die Katzenpfote (The Cat’s Paw).

    I like that coincidence because, to answer Aidan’s question above, while I don’t know of a composer whose manuscript score had a cat paw on it, there is a medieval manuscript thus decorated. It’s hardly surprising considering that these archives must have been full of cats in order to keep down the population of mice and rats that would otherwise make short work of the manuscripts, but it’s still a cute find.

  14. Merilee
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful music, beautiful soundboard, and stupenduous Meow ( who is the vocalist?)

    • wannabe
      Posted January 13, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink


      • natalielaberlinoise
        Posted January 13, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Scarlatti’s Domenicat;-)

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