Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was a renowned composer from Italy who spent most of his career working for the royal courts of Spain and Portugal. He was quite prolific, and much of his work is considered standard repertoire for any musician concerned with Baroque music. However, Scarlatti did receive some help from his cat Pulcinella, who provided the inspiration for one of his most popular works, Sonata K. 30, known as the Cat’s Fugue. “Sonata” refers to the fact that the piece is for keyboard alone, without singers. The story goes that Pulcinella was often inclined to walk across the keys of Scarlatti’s harpsichord, and when she produced this melody he immediately wrote it down, and later developed it into a type of composition called a fugue.
Fugue is a form of composition centered around a single melody, called a motif, which is developed throughout the piece using using a variety of methods. Think of a motif as the seed from which the rest of the composition is grown. This central motif is then woven through ever-increasing layers of counter melodies and harmonies, using guidelines derived from the rules of counterpoint.
The Cat Fugue proved influential, and the same theme was later used by notable composers such as George Frideric Handel, Anton Reicha, and Hans von Bulow. Other musicians have been inspired by their feline companions as well, including Zez Confrey’s ragtime-esque “Kitten on the Keys” and Amy Beach’s Fantasia Fugata, Op. 87.
Have a listen to Scarlatti’s Cat’s Fugue below. This video illustrates each note, with red dots representing Pulcinella’s melody. If you’d like to follow along with the sheet music, a copy is available online via the Library of Congress.
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