Kaplan Welcome back to “Mad About Music,” where we present the first of our traditional summer specials. Today we revisit a show featuring a guest who is back in the news, New York Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz.
Kaplan Those of you who struggle daily with the New York Times crossword puzzle – and I'm sure there are many among our listeners – no doubt know why Will Shortz is back in the news. About a week ago, a documentary was released called “Wordplay,” described as a journey into the world of Will Shortz, who has spent most of his life studying, creating and editing puzzles; and built a huge following along the way, including fans such as President Bill Clinton and the “Daily Show's” host, Jon Stewart, both of whom appear in the documentary. Puzzles dominate Will Shortz's life. He holds the world's only college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. His library on this subject is the world's largest, with more than 20,000 items. Since his appearance on “Mad About Music” two years ago, he has expanded his canvas and now has authored no fewer than 23 books on Sudoku, those infuriating number puzzles and in turn has sold more than 5 million copies on that topic. But when Will Shortz appeared on “Mad About Music,” our focus was on the remarkable and persistent role that music plays in the New York Times crossword puzzle. To open the show, I asked him to explain why such musical terms as “aria” and the instrument “oboe” seem to show up all the time in the puzzle.
Shortz Well, if you ever try to create a crossword puzzle, you'll instantly understand the importance of short words with lots of vowels, so a word like "oboe" or "aria" is very useful to a puzzle maker – it's the glue, it's the mortar of the puzzle that allows you to do the construction.
Kaplan Operas are especially popular in the puzzle. Which ones show up the most?
Shortz As you might guess, the most popular one is Aida , it's four letters, three of which are vowels. There's an on-line database of words and names that show up in crosswords and Aida is the most popular opera there, it showed up in the database 121 times. The next most popular was Tosca , at 58; Otello at 29, and you know, more familiar operas like Fidelio shows up only seven times, and La Traviata , which everyone knows, didn't show up at all.
Kaplan Now what about conductors? Who were the lucky ones with short names and a lot of vowels?
Shortz Well, Georg Solti is one of the top ones. Probably the number one conductor in crossword puzzles is Otto Klemperer, Otto being four letters, two of which are vowels. Other popular conductors in crosswords are Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, Riccardo Muti.
Kaplan I suppose crossword puzzles are a haven for one conductor whose name is not exactly easy to remember, Esa-Pekka Salonen, because his first name, Esa, gives you not only two vowels, but also an "s", which can hook onto words easily in a puzzle, right?
Shortz Yes, "esses" are very valuable, especially on the right side and bottom row of a crossword because of lots of plurals. I don't think Esa-Pekka Salonen is one of the best-known conductors in America , but the name does show up frequently in crosswords because of its value.
Kaplan All right, then let's listen to our first selection and we're going to hear some music that features the opera and conductor crossword regulars, Aida and Sir Georg Solti.
Kaplan The "Triumphal March" from Verdi's Aida , Sir Georg Solti conducting the Rome Opera Theater Orchestra, a musical selection to highlight Aida and Solti for their frequent appearances in The New York Times crossword puzzle, edited by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Will Shortz. Now, I have observed that crossword puzzles are popular with musicians. I've seen musicians in rehearsals who don't have to play for a long while actually scribbling away.
Kaplan And they even have competitions among some people in the New York Philharmonic, I am told, and they gather up The New York Times puzzle to take on long trips. Are classical musicians, you think, any good at this?
Shortz I think they are, because classical music and mathematics go together, and crosswords and mathematics go together. It's a certain mindset. The all-time champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which I run every year in Stamford , Connecticut , the all-time champion, is Jon Delfin, who's a pianist in Manhattan . He's won seven times.
Kaplan And do you ever have any musicians who are contributors of puzzles?
Shortz Well, there are two classical musicians who are frequent contributors to the Times . One of them is Elizabeth Gorski, who is a violist here in Manhattan , and Alfio Micci, who's a retired violinist with the New York Philharmonic.
Kaplan Now, do musicians ever contact you?
Shortz I've received letters from Stephen Sondheim, once very amusingly, because I misquoted a lyric of his in the Times crossword, and he wrote in to correct me. Beverly Sills is a regular Times crossword solver, and we've spoken by phone. And composer Ned Rorem has written me several times.
Kaplan I see. Now, it's very flattering, of course, to be in the puzzle. I once appeared – the clue was “Financier who conducts Mahler's Second Symphony”. But do musicians ever lobby to get into the puzzle at all?
Shortz Well, there's one musician whom I won't name who has done that. He has sent me lists of places he'll be, his work will be done, or names of his works. It's nice to get that, but I try to ignore messages I get like that. I want anything that appears in the crossword, I want it to appear naturally.
Kaplan Okay. Well, we've looked at opera and we've examined conductors. Let's now turn to instrumental appearances in the puzzle. Is there a clear winner there?
Shortz The most popular instrument in crosswords must be the oboe.
Kaplan But the oboe appears to be an easy word to get, but it shows up all the time in the puzzle and I know that you structure the puzzles so that each day during the week it gets harder and harder, and so the oboe shows up not only on Monday, but also on Friday. I mean, how do you work that out?
Shortz Well, that's right. If it's a Friday puzzle, I would like the clue for "oboe" to be harder. For a Monday puzzle, it might be straightforward like, a clue might be "Woodwind instrument", or "Double-reed instrument". For a Wednesday, Thursday puzzle, which is medium in difficulty, I might say “BLANK d'Amore” or “Relative of an English horn.” And on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, where it should be the most challenging puzzle, I might say “Orchestra seat,” or my favorite clue is, “It's in the winds.”
Kaplan All right, well, I hope our listeners have taken all those notes down, because the oboe keeps coming back. And so we then should hear the oboe as it's the instrumental crossword puzzle winner, and this time we'll hear it in a concerto by Telemann.
Kaplan The Third and Fourth Movements of Telemann's Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Strings , with soloist and conductor Thomas Indermühle and the English Chamber Orchestra. On “Mad About Music” we are featuring music with connections to The New York Times crossword puzzle, and to my guest, its editor, Will Shortz. The oboe, with its powerful combination of being only four letters, three of which are vowels, is the number one ranking instrument in appearances in the puzzle. Okay, we've covered operas, conductors, and instruments. What about musical terms that appear in the crossword puzzles? I'm sure the clear winner must be “aria,” just based on my own experience, right?
Shortz That's right. I've researched this and found that it's the 12th most common word of any type in crosswords, and it's the third most common answer in four letters.
Kaplan What's the competition?
Shortz Well, “alto” would be right up there. "Etude", "lento", you know, any of the musical notes in plural form, "re's", "me's", "fa's" and so on.
Kaplan Now, what about performers? I notice many of them show up in the puzzle because of the attractiveness of their first names.
Shortz Well, performers, both musicians and singers, some of the most popular ones are Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renata Tebaldi, Ezio Pinza, the pianist Emil Gilels, they all appear in crosswords all the time.
Kaplan Now, you mention Renée Fleming shows up a lot and I wonder if she realizes that while her multiple appearances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera reflect her glorious voice, her popularity in your crossword puzzles stems from her parents' decision to give her a first name of five letters, three of which are "e's". Okay, so let's try to tie all that we've been talking about together in the next selection. The number one musical term “aria,” the second most popular opera, Tosca , and a top contender for the singer, Kiri – for her first name – Te Kanawa.
Kaplan “Vissi d'arte” from Puccini's Tosca. Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and the Opera Orchestra of Lyons led by Kent Nagano. Our music selections on “Mad About Music” today have all connections to The New York Times crossword puzzle and with its editor and my guest, Will Shortz. Tosca is the second most seen opera in the puzzle, Aida , we heard earlier, is first. And Kiri Te Kanawa, with a first name of only four letters, two of which are vowels, also shows up frequently. You can learn more about Will Shortz or listen to any of our prior shows by logging on to our website at WNYC.org, and then just click on “Mad About Music”. When we return, we'll talk about the composer who ranks number one in appearances in The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music”, New York Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. We've been talking about music as it appears in the crossword puzzle, and so far we've covered operas, instruments, performances, conductors, musical terms. So now let's look at composers. Is there a clear winner?
Shortz Yes, there is, in four letters, it's Thomas Arne, A-R-N-E, the 18th century English composer who's best known for “Rule Britannia,” which comes from the Masque of Alfred . In this database of crossword answers at Cruciverb.com, it appeared 83 times, which was well above the second most common name, Satie, as in Erik Satie, which was only 45 times.
Kaplan Well, Satie, of course, is not nearly as well known as some other composers. I mean, who are some of the composers that we might expect to see in the puzzle who don't show up at all?
Shortz Well, take Beethoven, for example. Maybe the most famous composer of all appeared only three times; Brahms, two; again, it's the short, vowel-heavy names that are the most useful.
Kaplan Well, since we're focusing on the most appearances, I think we have to select Thomas Arne, and why don't we pick the piece you spoke about before, probably his best known, “Rule Britannia.”
Kaplan “Rule Britannia” by Thomas Arne, performed by the English String Orchestra, led by William Boughton, with tenor Edmund Barham and the Leeds Festival Chorus. Thomas Arne may be a fine composer, but his claim to fame here is that he's blessed with a short name, two vowels, which propels him to the top of the list of most appearances as a composer in The New York Times crossword puzzle, whose editor, Will Shortz, is my guest today on “Mad About Music.” We've now reached the part of the show where our guests have a chance to select a work from outside the classical and opera genre. We've had a fascinating history of these selections and we even did a special show on them, in fact. You can pick anything you like, and I would love to know what "Wildcard" did you bring us today?
Shortz Well, I brought something that will probably cause heart attacks across the audience here, but it's the song “Do Ya” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which appears frequently in crosswords, of course, as ELO. It was a hit song from 1977. I loved it then, and when I played it again the other day, I loved it just as much.
Kaplan “Do Ya,” performed by the Electric Light Orchestra, the "Wildcard" selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” New York Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. I suspect that classical music probably reached its zenith, in crossword puzzle terms at least, when The New York Times devoted an entire puzzle to the legendary violinist Isaac Stern. Tell me how that came about.
Shortz Well, my memory is that it was a puzzle by a long-time New York Times crossword constructor, going back to the 1950s. She had a quotation, I believe, from Isaac Stern. This was – it ran on his 80th birthday, and shortly after that, unfortunately, he died; but his family wrote me a very sweet note saying how much first they appreciated that puzzle, and how much they appreciated the names Isaac and Stern appearing in the crosswords over the years.
Kaplan So he was a frequent shower-upper in your puzzles even before that?
Kaplan So let's hear Isaac Stern as he plays Bach, the second-ranking classical composer behind Erik Satie, who has the benefit of three vowels and five letters. Stern plays the Violin Concerto of Bach.
Kaplan The First Movement of Bach's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E major . The English Chamber Orchestra led by Alexander Schneider with soloist Isaac Stern. Legendary as a violinist, the savior of Carnegie Hall, but here unique as the only musician to be the subject of an entire crossword puzzle in The New York Times , whose editor, Will Shortz, is our guest on “Mad About Music.” When we return, we'll learn Will Shortz's favorite classical work.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest New York Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. Now, listeners may have detected by now that when I've described the music we're playing, I have not attributed it to my guest, Will Shortz. And I guess it's also time for true confessions. Will Shortz is not really a classical music enthusiast. And on “Mad About Music,” you have to explain yourself!
Shortz You know, people do assume that something intellectual like the Times crossword has to be put together by someone who likes classical music. People make that assumption all the time. But, as you could guess from my “Wildcard” selection, “Do Ya” by the Electric Light Orchestra, I'm really more of a rock-n-roll sort of guy. I like music of all sorts. You know, I do listen to classical music, but what excites me the most is good, hard rock.
Kaplan But you did bring us one classical selection today, didn't you?
Shortz That's right. Something that I used to play quite a lot and I still enjoy. It is Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave , which I like, because of the heaviness of it, and it's based on a Slavic folk song, which gives it a nice melody that I enjoy.
Kaplan Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave , the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Neeme Jarvi, the favorite classical work of my guest, New York Times crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz. Will Shortz was a fascinating guest when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” Where else could you learn that terms you normally know in music – aria, Aida , oboe – turn out to be some of the most important words that always show up in the New York Times crossword puzzle. And, if you are a crossword puzzle enthusiast, go see “Wordplay,” the new documentary about the remarkable Will Shortz and his world of puzzles. And mark your calendar now for Sunday, August 6 th , at our usual 9:00 PM time for our second summer special, where we will explore “Wildcards,” the selections our guests have chosen from outside the classical music or opera genre – jazz, rock, country & western – you name it, we'll have it, and indeed, we have some wild ones. With appearances by Jimmy Carter, actor Alec Baldwin, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, architect Richard Meier, conductor Valery Gergiev, news anchor Tom Brokaw and many others. Curiously, these off-the-beaten path selections often reveal the most about our guests. Until then, enjoy the summer. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”