Humour and Classical Music
5. Berthold’s Cat’s Duet
by David Barker

A return to a classical piece written with the intention to amuse.

The Cats’ Duet (or to give it its full title Duetto buffo di due gatti – Comic Duet for Two Cats) was published in 1825 under the name “G Berthold”, which was clearly a pseudonym. Remarkably, the identity of the composer, though compiler might be a more accurate term as we shall see, has never been definitely established, though it has long been attributed to Rossini. A 1977 biography of the obscure English composer Robert Pearsall (1795-1856) suggested that it was he, rather than Rossini, who had created the piece. Not having access to the book, I don’t know the full extent of the evidence its author, Edgar Hunt, (using research undertaken by his father, Hubert, organist at Bristol Cathedral), provided for this assertion.

The evidence that I have managed to find is certainly not particularly compelling. The Cat’s Duet was published in London, but Rossini had been in the city shortly beforehand. It is known that Pearsall had a manuscript titled Cat Duet among his possessions (for this to be worth mentioning, I assume that it was in his own hand, rather than a printed copy). In Pearsall’s unpublished ballet Die Nacht eines Schwarmers, there is a scene with two dancers dressed as cats, with music closely resembling the Berthold duet. However, again as we shall see, borrowing wholesale chunks of other people’s work was still rife in the nineteenth century. So it seems that we will never know who really wrote/compiled it, nor what their motives were.

The piece is scored for two singers with piano accompaniment (or should that be accomplice?), the lyrics being simply the word “miau” (the Italian version of meow) repeated numerous times, in varying degrees of emotion. On the surface, it might be seen as simply a musical evocation of two cats, but is more likely to be a gentle parody of the antics of demanding opera singers. It might also be making fun of Rossini’s style, if the Pearsall theory is to be believed. Of course, Rossini’s sense of humour is well-known, so let’s not discount the idea that he might have been having some fun at his own expense.

The work borrows heavily, indeed almost entirely, on existing works. It begins with what is essentially a straight lift without acknowledgement (ah, the “good” old days before copyright) from a short song – Katte-Cavatine – by the Danish composer CEF Weyse using the same premise: the repeated use of the cat’s meow. It then moves on to borrow music from Rossini’s Otello, Rodrigo’s aria and the Otello/Iago duet.

It has become a frequently performed encore piece, with a number of recordings by well-known singers. Perhaps the starriest combination is that of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Victoria de los Angeles with Gerald Moore from 1967 – it is still available on Warner Classics on the album A Tribute to Gerald Moore (5679902). Moore also accompanies Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry (available in a Warner boxset of Ludwig’s recordings 9029569020). The Swedish duo of Kerstin Meyer and Elisabeth Söderström has recorded it twice with pianist Jan Eyron: Sterling (CDA1862/63-2) and BIS (BISCD017). Into the 90s, Felicity Lott and Ann Murray with Graham Johnson recorded it for EMI, now available through Warner Classics (7777544115).

In the last decade, the French pair of contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and soprano Patrizia Ciofi on Erato (9029595326) perform it in an orchestral arrangement. Soprano Sophie Karthäuser and counter-tenor Dominique Visse with Eugene Asti included it in an animal-themed album on Harmonia Mundi (HMM902260) which has been praised highly by two of our reviewers (reviewreview), though one of them didn’t think the Cat’s Duet really fitted with the rest of the works.

I don’t really have an opinion about the merits of these various recordings, and it is my feeling that it is a work best seen rather than just listened to. There is a quite wonderful version from the 1996 Last Night of the Proms with Felicity Lott and Ann Murray, accompanied this time by Andrew Davis. I won’t spoil it for you by describing the visual humour, but I do thoroughly recommend it (YouTube). Other performances worthy of your attention come from Kiri Te Kanawa and Norma Burrowes (from a 1982 BBC show Call Me Kiri) (YouTube) and a really excellent performance by a pair of lesser-known singers, Chinwe Enu and Adrienne Webster, who play up the interaction between the cats to the max (YouTube).

There are two virtual (Zoom) performances given during Covid which caught my eye. An amateur group, the Quarantine Choir, comprising forty or so singers, most of whom had dressed or made up as cats (YouTube); not the most polished rendition, but they looked like they were having fun. A more professional version came from the Welsh National Opera (YouTube), with singers Rosie Hay and Francesca Saracino, accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble; they too dressed as cats.

Finally, a performance purely intended for its comedic effect: the British comedians George Logan and Patrick Fyffe created the characters of Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket, elderly female musicians, in the early 1970s. They became a significant presence in British comedy circles over the next decade, with their own TV show Dear Ladies, appearances in Royal Variety Performances, and were even cast in a 1983 Royal Opera House production of Die Fledermaus. If memory serves me correctly, they were even parodied by The Two Ronnies (or perhaps they appeared on the show). I’m not sure where the Hinge & Bracket YouTube performance of the Cat’s Duet comes from, but the duo also recorded it for EMI in 1976.

I mustn’t close without mentioning that there is another Cat’s Duet, one whose provenance is without doubt: the Duo miaulé from Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges. While the opera is certainly on the lighter end of the spectrum, it is not opera buffa, and the cat’s duet is portraying two cats. Recently, Len Mullenger provided a commentary on the work, including sound excerpts and the beautiful images created by Gerard Hoffnung.