Listen closely and soon you will hear, coming from out back of the timpani, the sound of dogs in classical music. Many of the Great Composers kept dogs. Some put dogs into their music.
The Mozart family dog, a fox terrier, was named Bimbes, though the prodigy Wolfy changed her name to the southern German diminutive Bimperl. So pleased was he with this clever dog-eared ornamentation that he similarly re-christened his sister Anna to Nannerl.
Correspondence by the Mozart family is tracked with mentions of Bimberl. Whenever traveling, Wolfy seldom failed to send "a thousand kisses to Bimberl."
At twenty-one, Mozart went with his mother to Paris where the young genius hoped to land a job. But his was a long, dark stay in the City of Lights, and turned tragic when Frau Mozart died.
Back in Salzburg, Nannerl kept her brother informed as to his dear Bimberl, describing how the old dog stationed herself at the door each day and waited mournfully for Wolfy and Mozart mère to come home.
While Mozart never enshrined Bimberl in music, more than a century later another composer, Sir Edward Elgar, most certainly put the hound in his harmony.
Elgar kept a succession of dogs until he was twenty-nine, when he married Caroline Alice Roberts, love of his life, who could not abide "the filthy creatures!" Thereafter, Elgar loved the dogs of friends, particularly one Dan, a white-faced English bulldog from the Midlands. With each visit to their friends the Sinclairs, Elgar sought out Dan, if Dan did not seek out Elgar first. Come the end of the visit, upon taking his leave, Elgar sometimes jotted in the visitors' book a musical picture of the dog that day, such as "He sleeps," "Dan uneasy" and "He fidgets and ... fffz Barks.” Some of these Moods of Dan made their way into some of Elgar's noblest music.
The mood "Dan triumphant (after a fight)" was turned into the leaping opening chords of the overture In the South. The five Adagio bars "Dan wistful (outside the cathedral)" were included in "For the Fallen," the last number of the patriotic choral work The Spirit of England. "The sinful youth of Dan" became the festive opening of the imperial masque The Crown of India, composed for the coronation in India of King George V and Queen Mary.
But beyond even these works, Dan is best remembered for achieving dogkind's greatest musical minute of praise and favor: Variation XI "G.R.S.” from Enigma Variations. (The initials belonged to Dan's owner, George Robertson Sinclair.)
Elgar said of this sixty-second Allegro, "The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank in the River Wye; his paddling up stream to find a landing place; and his rejoicing bark on landing. G.R.S. said ‘Set that to music.’ I did; here it is."
One more of Dan's moods, "He muses (on the muzzling order)," was transfigured into the prayer theme that plays a central part in The Dream of Gerontius, the oratorio regarded by many as the Elgarian masterpiece. As such, the Worcester Cathedral later made The Dream of Gerontius the subject of a stained glass window commemorating the town's native son, Sir Edward, Master of the King's Musick (and by extension the dog he loved).
By order of Our Lady the Queen, I hereby bestow upon Dan, a bulldog, Her Majesty's honor, B.C.M, Best in Classical Music.
In July 1903, G.R.S. wrote to Elgar, "Poor dear old Dan died an hour ago. He was my best friend.” Dan was given a little grave in a quiet, shady spot beneath a big apple tree.
Though he kept no dogs in his tiny apartment, what a laugh to see such craft from the French composer Erik Satie in his Trois Véritables Preludes Flasques (pour un chien), Three Veritable Flabby Preludes (for a dog). The name is silly (a spoof of Claude Debussy's quaintly cat-like Preludes), but Satie's artistic intent was no less serious than that of, say, his drinking buddy at Le Chat Noir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The similarities between these two artists' most famous dogs suggest they are of like breed. Toulouse-Lautrec's 1899 book cover "The Motograph Moving Picture Book" depicts a domestic scene in which appears an apparent Belgian tervuren – a mahogany-haired, perky-eared shepherd dog – sitting and growling across the room at a black cat, which glares back from its perch on a three-legged stool. The two animals are drawn in blue crayon and Indian ink, with Toulouse-Lautrec's distinctive deft, nervous line and delicious wit. The room is bathed in harsh light. The scene is at once brutal and alluring.
So it is with the Flabby Preludes, written a few years later, after the fortyish Satie finished three years at a high-tone music school, the Schola Cantorum, earning a Diploma in Counterpoint.
There is nothing flabby about these pooch pieces. Rather, they are contrapuntally correct in an obedient sort of way – linear and sharp.
The first, Sévère reprimande, is an insistent toccata, barking with bass chords.
The second, Seul à la maison, is a serene two-part invention (à la Bach) which, without much help from our imagination, may depict Toulouse-Lautrec's Belgian tervuren momentarily at rest on the floor, showing the cat dog-indifference.
In the last Flabby Prelude, On joué, the tervuren is suddenly up and bounds across the room on fourths and fifths. The cat hisses minor sevenths and scats up the keyboard. Out the door they go! Into the scattering leaves on the Montmartre sidewalks.
One of music's most humane veterinary operations was performed by Dr. Leos Janácek, a keeper of dogs in his old age. A favorite was one large mongrel whose deep black coat won from Janacek the name Cert (Devil). Janácek notated Cert's varied vocalizations and included some in a local Brno exhibit of his writings and music.
During this time Janácek also held a keen interest in the folk rhymes he read regularly in the Children's Supplement of a Brno newspaper, and in 1925-26 he set nineteen, in a cycle of couplets for nine voices, Ríkadle (Nonsense Rhymes). Number eight, "Nás pes nás pes," laments: "Our dog, our dog's/broken his tail./For his own good, his mate/Trapped it in the garden gate."
The verse describes a formerly common rural method of humane amputation. A broken vertebra in a dog's tail will not heal easily, and can be extremely painful whenever the dog wags its tail. Better to cut it off.
George Gershwin participated in the dog and pony show Shall We Dance with his miniature for chamber orchestra "Walking the Dog."
This 1936 film musical stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and a West Highland terrier who plays the role of My Little Darling.
The scene is aboard the ocean liner Queen Anne, en route to New York one blue rhapsodic evening, where two Americans, Astaire and Rogers, are leaving Paris. He is doggedly pursuing her. Seeing Rogers walking her little white dog on the promenade deck, Astaire borrows a Great Dane and joins them. Gershwin's sprightly score accompanies the doggie constitution, which leads to a tête-à-tête at the ship's railing – just the four of them.
Rogers fends off Astaire's verbal advances with a dog eye, and when he asks her to give him a chance "as one Yankee to another," she replies icily, "I'm from the south."
Astaire now addresses My Little Darling in mock southern accent: "Maybe you all's from the north."
The terrier, in a key speaking part, snaps at Astaire with an angry, high-pitched bark.
"It's funny," Rogers says, echoing Sir Walter Scott's immortal sentiment that dogs are incapable of deceit, "dogs have an instinct for the right people."
"Walking the Dog" is reprised the next night as Astaire and Rogers, formally dogged out, stroll together, and the formally sweatered terrier keeps in step with their syncopated step – the three of them putting on the dog, one might say. My Little Darling stops in its tracks and watches quizzically as the two humans carry out their strange mating ritual.
We should allow in our Classical Kennel a canine of less domestication, Serge Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, if only to shelter it from PC attacks. Witness the incident of a cellist in a regional symphony orchestra who resigned in protest rather than perform Prokofiev's kids classic. She objected to the work's portrayal of a threatened species as a menacing predator.
We should allow it in, but we won't. The wolf and the dog are simply different creatures, like different forms of art. To put them together would be like cross breeding drama and music. And we know the result of such a doggo admixture: Opera!
"Just imagine a human with the character of a dog!" said Fritz Kreisler, violin virtuoso and writer of delightful scraps of faux baroque musical doggerel. "He would be loving, thankful, true, strong, graceful, a true demigod."
In sixty years, the childless Fritz and Harriet Kreisler were rarely dogless. There were about a dozen dogs in all, usually in pairs, living on the Kreislers' wooden estate in western Berlin and later in their Manhattan apartment not far from Central Park. No Kreisler dog was more beloved than a wirehaired fox terrier named Rexie, whom the violinist called "my best pal."
Kreisler, whose playing was famous for its ease of perfection, was so dog-conscious he likened his aesthetic instincts to those of Rexie. "There is only one critical judgment I can rely upon – the verdict of the spine. If I feel a thrill down my spine, I know that it is good. See," he added, motioning to Rexie who lay on the floor, his tail wagging with a French vibrato, "he is most excited when he sways his tail. He gets his thrill through his spine!"
It's an impressive pack of Classical Dogs, yes? Yet it rightly should include one more. Alas, one of music's most charming pets is lost.
Here's the sad story. It was the summer of 1892. The gentle Frenchman Gabriel Fauré had reached middle-age and the ninth year of an arranged marriage which had always lacked the tender sensuality of his music. While visiting his parents-in-law in the Seine valley resort town of Prunay, Fauré met a witty and elegant femme du monde, an amateur soprano, Mme Sigismond Bardac (Emma), and entered into une passion infidele.
Emma Bardac and her banker husband led lives of mutual independence. Thus, Fauré made frequent visits to the Bardacs' Parisian home, where he was a favorite with the two Bardac children, Raoul and Dolly, and the family dog, Ketty.
Scholarship has made a dog's breakfast of the identity of Ketty's breed. That this essential bit of dog-tagging has been left undone is woeful, but even a leading Fauré authority (Nectoux) identifies Ketty merely as "a dog."
During four years as an intimate of the Bardac family, Fauré composed a suite of six pieces for piano duet as gifts for the petite, blonde-haired Dolly. One piece, "Ketty Valse," was a portrait of the family pup. From the delicate, whirling music we may surmise that Ketty was a Maltese. The Maltese possesses the unpretentious sophistication characteristic of Emma Bardac. Its easy affection for children and even temper would have appealed to Fauré. And like the "Ketty Valse" the Maltese is compact and enjoys a good romp.
Years later, when the Dolly suite was being published, a careless editor missed a typo on the manuscript and "Ketty Valse" became "Kitty Valse," the name by which it has been known ever since. Hence, not only has Ketty gone without scholarly pedigree validation, but posterity has actually turned the poor hound into a cat!
What's more, Fauré's chére amie Emma later divorced her husband to marry that most feline of Great Composers, Debussy – consigning Fauré to love’s doghouse.