Words and Music

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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
    See
    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.)

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):

gobert

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

steingruber

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):

glonner

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.)

Alchemy

Mike Keith found this amazing correspondence in 2004. The two 6×6 squares below contain 72 different entries from the periodic table of the elements:

mike keith chemical squares

The two squares are equal in three different ways:

  1. If you spell out the name of each element listed (hydrogen, beryllium, etc.), the square on the left is an anagram of the square on the right.
  2. The sum of the atomic numbers of the 36 elements on the left (2019) equals the sum of those on the right.
  3. If you replace each symbol with its alphabetic score (where A=1, B=2, etc.; e.g. Li = L + I = 12 + 9 = 21), then the sum of the scores on the left (737) equals that of those on the right.

Keith writes, “The next largest pair of triply-equal squares like this would be 7×7 in size, containing a total of 98 different elements, [and] it seems quite unlikely that 98 of them could be so arranged. If this is true then the 6×6 pair presented here is the largest possible (at least for now, until many more new chemical elements have been discovered and named).”

(Mike Keith, “A Magical Pair of 6×6 Chemical Squares,” Word Ways, February 2004.)

United Nations

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In August 1805, Lewis and Clark encountered a band of Shoshone Indians led by Chief Cameahwait. In order for Lewis to communicate with Cameahwait, the group had to speak four languages: Lewis spoke English to Private Francois Labiche, who spoke French to interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, who spoke Hidatsa to his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who spoke Shoshone to Chief Cameahwait. Cameahwait’s reply passed back up the chain in the opposite direction.

Amazingly, Cameahwait turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. They had been separated for five years, ever since her abduction by Hidatsa in 1800. Overjoyed at the reunion, he gave the expedition much-needed guides and horses to help them cross the Rocky Mountains.

In a Word

jawsmith
n. a talkative person

meropic
adj. able to speak

obmutescent
adj. speechless; remaining mute

Mr. Justice Norris, in the Calcutta High Court, recently delivered what is understood to be the shortest summing-up on record. It was as follows: ‘Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner has nothing to say, and I have nothing to say. What have you got to say?’

The Green Bag, October 1890

Borrowed Insight

In 2015, University of East London psychologist Tim Lomas encountered the Finnish word sisu, which means something like extraordinary determination in the face of adversity. The word has no direct analog in English, but it describes a universal human trait — an English speaker who learns it can more easily recognize and appreciate sisu in herself and others, which enriches her life.

Lomas began collecting similarly specific words that describe positive feelings:

  • Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun
  • Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment
  • Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) – the relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally
  • Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished
  • Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment
  • Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived

Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says that learning to make fine distinctions in identifying one’s feelings increases “emotion granularity,” which has real benefits — people with a rich emotional vocabulary recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol. Yale psychologist Marc Brackett, who has seen similar benefits among children, agrees that Lomas’ word list could help people to identify and appreciate their positive feelings. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives.”

Lomas’ list now numbers more than 400 words — you can browse them here.

(Thanks, Greg.)

Polyglot Ten-Squares

Since 1897 wordplay enthusiasts have been seeking an order-10 word square — a 10 × 10 array of letters whose rows and columns, read in order, produce the same set of 10 words. In English this is so difficult that it’s been called the Holy Grail of logology, but the task gets dramatically easier when we increase the vocabulary, and one way to do this is to admit words from multiple languages:

A  A  N  G  E  H  A  R  D  E  Dutch
A  P  E  R  N  A  S  E  I  S  Spanish
N  E  C  E  L  I  S  T  V  I  Czech
G  R  E  N  A  D  E  R  E  N  Norwegian
E  N  L  A  G  U  N  A  R  E  Spanish
H  A  I  D  U  C  E  S  T  E  Romanian
A  S  S  E  N  E  R  A  I  S  French
R  E  T  R  A  S  A  R  S  E  Spanish
D  I  V  E  R  T  I  S  S  E  French
E  S  I  N  E  E  S  E  E  N  Finnish

Graham Toal produced this example, as well as 775 others, in 2004, to prove the concept; Word Ways editor A. Ross Eckler estimated that Toal’s program might produce 135,000 such squares. In 2004 Toal told Eckler that some further efforts were being contemplated using distributed computing, but I haven’t seen anything since then.

(A. Ross Eckler, “The Polyglot Ten-Square,” Word Ways 37:3 [August 2004], 207-208.)

Q.E.D.

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From the Daily Telegraph‘s obituary of Charles Dodgson, Jan. 15, 1898:

The sayings attributed to him at Oxford would fill an entertaining volume of Carrolliana. Among other things, his ‘etymology of the bell’ is still quoted with relish by scholars. There was a provisional belfry at Christ Church College, which was familiarly known to Oxonians of the time as ‘the meat safe.’ Mr. Dodgson, undertaking to explain this epithet etymologically, split up the word belfry into two parts — the French word belle and the German word frei (free). Then he went to work as follows:

Belle = beautiful = comely = meet (meat);
Frei = free = secure = safe
Result: ‘Meat-safe.’

His nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, wrote, “No one who was not by nature a lover of logic, and an extreme precisian in the use of words and phrases, could have written the two ‘Alice’ books.”