Words and Music


Anthony Burgess based his 1974 novel Napoleon Symphony explicitly on the structure of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica:

  • The story is told in four “movements,” whose length corresponds to the listening time of the corresponding parts of the symphony: 118 pages (14:46 minutes), 120 pages (15:34 minutes), 30 pages (5:33 minutes), and 77 pages (11:27 minutes).
  • The allegro takes Bonaparte “from his early Italian triumphs to his crowning as Emperor”; the marcia funebre moves to the retreat from Russia; in the scherzo Napoleon attends a play featuring Prometheus; and the finale depicts his life and death on St. Helena.
  • Where the symphony begins with two sharp chords, the novel starts with Napoleon giving Josephine “two excruciating love-pinches.” In the first movement Bonaparte corresponds to the “masculine thematic group,” Josephine to the “second, or feminine subject.” The sonata form requires repetition, so, for example, the opening sentence, “Germinal in the Year Four” appears in the “recapitulation” with a slight variation, as “Germinal in the Year Seven.” The contrasting themes are reflected in shifts of scene and viewpoint, and harmonic variation is suggested by the frequent repetition of certain phrases with minor changes.
  • In the second movement Napoleon dreams of his death in verses set precisely to the rhythm of Beethoven’s theme (these are printed with the score in his essay “Bonaparte in E Flat” in This Man and Music):

    There he lies,
    Ensanguinated tyrant
    O bloody, bloody tyrant
    How the sin within
    Doth incarnadine
    His skin
    From the shin to the chin.

  • During the retreat from Russia, he approximates counterpoint by writing in two levels of language, which he hopes “will leave an aftertaste of polyphony.” For example: “The primary need, General Eblé said, is to obtain the requisite structural materials and this will certainly entail the demolition of civilian housing in the adjacent township. Now the first job, Sergeant Rebour said, is to get planking, and the only way to get it is to pull down all those fucking houses.”
  • In the scherzo the waltz rhythm is reflected in sentences such as “Dance dance dance! The orchestra struck up another waltz” and “They danced. United Kingdom of Benelux Benelux, Britain gets Malte and Cape of Good Hope.”
  • The finale is based on the so-called Prometheus theme (E-flat, B-flat, B-flat, E-flat), which Burgess visualizes as a cross in the score. He interprets the initials on Jesus’ cross, INRI, as Impera[torem] Nap[oleonem] Regem Interfec[it], an acrostic that recurs throughout the movement.

Overall, Burgess said, he wanted to pursue “one mad idea”: “to give / Symphonic shape to verbal narrative” and to “impose on life … the abstract patterns of the symphonist.”

He dedicated the novel to Stanley Kubrick, hoping that it might form the basis of the director’s long-planned biography of the emperor, but Kubrick decided that “the [manuscript] is not a work that can help me make a film about the life of Napoleon.” Undismayed, Burgess developed it instead into an experimental novel. The critics didn’t like it, but he said it was “elephantine fun” to write.

(From Theodore Ziolkowski, Music Into Fiction, 2017.)

A Lofty Vision


Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer proposed this design for a museum of modern art in Caracas in 1955. He conceived it as a pyramid standing on its apex; the roof would be one vast skylight, and daylight would penetrate the levels inside thanks to spaces at the edges of the floor slabs. There are no side windows so as not to disturb the unity of the slanted walls.

The ground floor would house an auditorium; above that, successively, were a foyer, an exhibition gallery, a mezzanine exhibition space, and the roof, with a sculpture terrace. To free the exhibition halls of load-bearing supports, the mezzanine would be suspended from the four corners of the pyramid by perpendicular tensors.

The whole thing would have perched on a cliff overlooking central Caracas. A change in regime meant that it never got beyond the planning stage.

A Second Look


M.C. Escher’s 1935 lithograph Hand With Reflecting Sphere gave artist Kelly M. Houle an idea.

She drew this image in charcoal on a piece of illustration board:

escher anamorphosis

Now when a cylindrical mirror is placed at the center, it produces this reflection:

escher anamorphic reflection

“When the original image is bent and stretched into a circular swath, the shadows seem to fall in all directions,” she wrote. “When the curved mirror is used to reflect the anamorphic distortion, the forms take on the familiar rules of light and shading that make them seem three-dimensional.”

(Kelly M. Houle, “Portrait of Escher: Behind the Mirror,” in D. Schattschneider and M. Emmer, eds., M.C. Escher’s Legacy, 2003.)

Law and Ordure

Image: Flickr

Chicago artist Jerzy Kenar put up this bronze statue in front of his East Village home as a gentle reminder: “I hoped it would motivate dog owners to pick up after their pets.”

When the water’s running it looks even more realistic than this. But both mayor Richard M. Daley and Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church, attended the unveiling in 2005.

Kenar says that the statue, at 1003 North Wolcott Avenue, is intended to be whimsical, and that most visitors take it in that spirit, posing and even drinking from the fountain. “Only one little old lady didn’t get the joke,” he said.

He also designed the Black History Fountain near St. Sabina … so this one is sometimes called his “number two fountain.”

(From Greg Borzo, Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains, 2017.)

Spelling It Out

In the 17th century, French architect Thomas Gobert planned 12 churches whose forms spelled out the words LOVIS LE GRAND (where each letter is doubled mirrorwise, for symmetry):


In 1775 Johann David Steingruber designed a castle whose floor plan formed the initials of Prince Christian Carl Friedrich Alexander of Anspach:


And in 1774 Anton Glonner designed a Jesuit college based on the name of Christ (IHS, the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek):


The H contained the kitchen, the dining room, and the sacristy, and the S contained the schoolrooms.

(From Ulrich Conrads and Hans G. Sperlich, The Architecture of Fantasy, 1962.)

An Architect’s Dream

ambasz folly 1

This is just an image that I liked. In 1983, in preparation for an exhibition at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, architect B.J. Archer invited some of his friends to submit plans for a folly — “an object which embodies no function, save for demarcation, or is useful only for a small segment of daily life.”

Emilio Ambasz submitted the following. “I never thought about it in words,” he wrote, “It came to me as an image — full-fledged, clear and irreducible, like a vision”:

I fancied myself the owner of a wide grazing field, somewhere in the fertile plains of Texas or in the province of Buenos Aires. In the middle of this field was a partly sunken open-air construction. I felt as if this place had always existed. The entrance was marked by a three-column baldachino supporting a lemon tree. From the entrance a triangular earthen plane stepped gently toward the diagonal of a large, square sunken courtyard — half earth, half water. A rocky mass rose in the centre of the courtyard resembling a mountain. A barge made of logs floated on the water; it was sheltered by a thatched roof supported by wooded trusses resting on four square, sectioned, wood pillars. Using a long pole, the barge could be sculled into an opening in the mountain. Once inside this cave I could alight the barge on a cove-like shore illuminated by the zenithal opening. More often, I used the barge to reach an L-shaped cloister where, shaded from the sun or sheltered from the wind, I could sit and read, draw or just think. The cloister was defined on the outside by the water basin and on the inside by a number of undulating planes screening alcove-like spaces.

ambasz folly 2

In the alcoves he stored childhood toys, school notebooks, a stamp collection, and an old military uniform. “Not all things stored in these alcoves were there because they had given me pleasure; they were things I could not discard.” In his imagination he would traverse the water basin occasionally to dress up in the uniform, “assuring myself I had not put on too much weight.”

One last thing: In place of one of the alcoves was the entrance to a tunnel leading to an open pit full of fresh mist. “I never understood how this cold water mist originated, but it never failed to produce a rainbow.”

ambasz folly 3

(From Archer’s Follies, 1983.)



There’s an interesting detail in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434. The painting depicts Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife in their home in Bruges. In the background is a convex mirror over which is inscribed the legend “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (“Jan van Eyck was here 1434”). And curiously, reflected in the mirror, where we’d expect to see the painter and his easel, are two figures:


In 1934 art historian Erwin Panofsky offered a unique explanation for this: The painting is an “artistic marriage certificate.” Neither Arnolfini nor his new wife had any relatives at Bruges at the time of their marriage, and the custom at the time was to record two witnesses to the wedding. “So that we can understand the original idea of a picture which was a memorial portrait and a document at the same time, and in which a well-known gentleman-painter signed his name both as artist and as witness.”

Amused by the reflection, Hungarian graphic designer István Orosz set up his own arrangement in his 1997 etching Johannes de Eyck fuit hic, below. “Here I attempt to show the world behind the door with the help of two mirrors.”


For a thousand bucks you can buy your own Van Eyck mirror and investigate for yourself.

(Erwin Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 64:372 [March 1934], 117-119.)


Here’s an especially vivid example of the illusion created by Dick Termes’ six-point perspective.

If you can convince yourself that the front half of this sphere is transparent, and that the image is painted on the interior of the back half, you’ll find that you’re inside the cage, turning to your left, while the birds are outside the cage, looking in at you. (To get started, I find it helps to focus on an edge of the sphere, rather than the center.)

There are many more examples on Termes’ YouTube channel.

A Good Start

opalka 1 million

In 1965, Polish artist Roman Opałka hung a 196 × 135 cm canvas in his Warsaw studio. In the top left corner he painted a tiny numeral 1, then a 2, and so on until he had filled the canvas with numbers. Then he put up a new canvas and continued where he had left off. He called these images “details”; all of them had the same size and the same title, 1965 / 1 – ∞.

He vowed to spend the rest of his life on the project. “All my work is a single thing,” he said, “the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life. … The problem is that we are, and are about not to be.”

At the start he painted white numbers on a black background, but in 1972 he began gradually to lighten the black with each detail, saying that his goal was “to get up to the white on white and still be alive.” He expected that this would happen when he reached 7777777 … but at the time of his death, in 2011, he’d got only as far as 5607249.