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Sheet Music of the Week: Feline Edition

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“Long ago.” Music and lyrics by Clarence Sinn. Chicago: Clarence E. Sinn & Bros., 1908

The following is a guest post by frequent In the Muse contributor, Senior Cataloger Sharon McKinley.

I hear this question ALL the time: does the Library of Congress have any cute cat videos? Well of COURSE the Library has cute cat videos. They’re just not in the Music Division (The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Record Sound Division has some, though; keep reading!). It remains an indisputable fact that pretty kitties are a great sheet music sales device.  Even today, a well-selected bundle of whiskers can mean the difference between a successful advertising campaign and public indifference.  Nobody went broke saying, “Put a picture of a kitten on it!”

In the mid-19th century, lithographed sheet music covers became all the rage (see Ruth Bright’s post of June 22, 2012 ), and the artists let their imaginations run free. The quality of the artwork is very high, but sometimes the maudlin sentiments embodied in that art and in the music it’s illustrating have me rolling my eyes.

Detail from “John Anderson’s gane,” written and composed by G.J. Bennet. New York : Firth & Hall, ca. 1843

Death was a popular theme back then, generally expressed in the most sentimental of musical terms. To someone looking back 170 years later, some yawningly pedestrian music is redeemed only by the beauty of its illustrations.  And few things tug at the heartstrings more than a cute kitten. So combine a tragic death with a sweet little cat and you have a sale! Here’s a lovely example.

G.J. Bennet published “John Anderson’s gane” in 1843. He’s gane, all right, and mourned by his wife, who is taking solace in her reading and the family cat, who is providing a touch of softness to her sad mistress.  As a portrait of 19th-century life, the widow Anderson may seem far removed from 21st century experiences, but who among those not cursed by animal allergies has not sought comfort in the unconditional mew of a beloved pet?

But the mood is often more upbeat than that. “Dreamland waltz“, an 1876 piano piece by Charles Kinkel,  features a adorable little girl napping in a doorway with an equally adorable kitty.  But the image presented is not that of the little girl’s dream, which we may never know. It is a scene all the more tender when one realizes the dreamland depicted is in fact reality. All together, now: Awwwww!

Detail from “Dreamland waltz ,” by C. Kinkel. Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1876.

As time went on, the depictions of felines changed drastically. By 1907, when Clarence Sinn self-published his music for Lincoln J. Carter’s Chicago-produced stage extravaganza The Cat and the Fiddle, illustrators had branched off in many directions. This cover (seen at the top of this post) almost seems a tiny bit menacing. Here’s a bit of history of the show, plus the entire bizarre plot (which certainly explains the cover!), from the New York Dramatic Mirror,  August 31, 1907.

The entire story of Le Moulin du Chat qui Fume  is told on the cover of an undated publication of selections from A. Le Roy’s one-act opera, written in the late 1890s. What a delightful illustration! And the cat is indeed smoking, as the title suggests.

Oh, didn’t I promise you cute cat videos? Check out these gems:

Detail from “Le Moulin du chat qui fume: Operette-bouffe en un acte,” by Alexandre LeRoy

Krazy Kat  and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus,” 1916, based on George Harriman’s classic newspaper strip.

Stealing a dinner,” 1903. The cat had help on this one; inter-species cooperation at its finest, with camerawork by Billy Bitzer, one of the great early cinematographers.

So the Library of Congress can provide all the cute cats your heart desires! We even have a YouTube channel, and the cat videos are there! Just search cats, and enjoy!

Finally a few choice kittens from the National Jukebox:

Comments (6)

  1. meowishly awesome. Looking forward to the full lecture next month!

  2. Hey, is it too late to rename the blog “In the Mews” for a day?

  3. Dear sherry GREAT STUFF. Very interesting

  4. I remember a meeting of the FLS Books editors where we pondered books that might actually sell. The best suggestion: Gardening Recipes for Cats. Sadly we never found an author for that one. . .

  5. And let’s not forget Buzzer the Cat from the Prints & Photographs Division. He really got around. Do a keyword search in PPOC on “Buzzer” and you’ll see for yourself!

  6. LOL, Robin. Thanks for adding P&P!

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