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ketzel the cat

Prize-winning composer, Ketzel the cat, dies at 19
by James Barron


Ketzel, who won a prize for piano composition in 1997 and went on to be featured in a book, “The World of Women in Classical Music,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 19 and lived on the Upper West Side.

Ketzel was a black-and-white cat.

That would explain why, like many other musicians — Midori, Liberace, Mantovani and Madonna, for example — Ketzel went by only one name, except when the occasional royalty check came in. The first, for $19.72, was for a performance in Rotterdam. The check was made out to “Ketzel Cotel.”

“We thought, how are we going to cash this?” recalled her owner, Aliya Cheskis-Cotel.

“Luckily, at the bank, they knew my husband and knew our credit was good, and they allowed us to cash it. We told Ketzel we could buy a lot of yummy cat food for $19.72.”

Ms. Cheskis-Cotel’s husband, who died in 2008, was Morris Moshe Cotel, who retired as chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory in 2000 and became a rabbi. “He said she was his best student and her fame surpassed his,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said.

Ketzel (“cat” in Yiddish) was a one-hit wonder among composers — she never wrote another piece. And her career was launched only because she launched herself onto the keyboard of Professor Cotel’s Baldwin grand one morning in 1996.

He was playing a prelude and fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach, as he did every morning — he worked his way through a different prelude and fugue each day, as a kind of warmup exercise.

On the morning in question, Ketzel leapt onto the piano, landing in the treble. She worked her way down to the bass. Professor Cotel was startled, but grabbed a pencil and started transcribing. He was impressed by the “structural elegance” of what he heard, Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said. “He said, ‘This piece has a beginning, a middle and an end. How can this be? It’s written by a cat.’”

It was a model of brevity, shorter than Leroy Anderson’s “Waltzing Cat” or Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” But Professor Cotel set it aside — until he received an announcement seeking entries for the Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition, open to pieces no more than 60 seconds long. “He said, ‘I don’t have anything that’s less than 60 seconds and my students don’t,’” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled, ” ‘but I’ll send in the piece by the cat.’”

Professor Cotel explained the composer’s identity in the entry, but the judges were not told that; they were shown only the music. They awarded “Piece for Piano, Four Paws” a special mention.

“We gave the piece serious consideration because it was quite well written,” Guy Livingstone, one of the judges, said in 1997. “It reminded us of Anton Webern. If Webern had a cat, this is what Webern’s cat would have written.”

That led to an exchange of letters between Professor Cotel and the Webern biographer Allen Forte. Along the way, Professor Cotel said he realized that Ketzel’s “exquisite atonal miniature” used only 10 pitches of the chromatic scale. “The two missing pitches are G natural and B-flat” — the opening notes of Domenico Scarlatti’s famous Fugue in G minor, known as the “Cat’s Fugue.”

Ketzel’s piece had its concert premiere at Peabody in 1998 and was later performed in Europe and heard on public radio. And once it was performed at the Museum of the City of New York, with the composer in attendance.

“I said, ‘I’m bringing Ketzel to the performance,’ ” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled. “They said, ‘No, you’re not.’ ”

But she did.

Ketzel’s composition was the next-to-last piece on a two-hour program. Ketzel sat quietly in her carrier in a back row as the big moment approached.

“Finally, when it was time for her piece to be performed,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said, “the pianist announced, ‘The next piece, believe it or not, was written by Ketzel the Cat.’ From the back of the hall, Ketzel went, ‘Yeeeowww.’ The people were on the floor, but of course she knew her name.”

Ketzel's tune can be found on the album "Purrfectly Classical", available at amazon.com.




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