This was something of an indulgence, and the editorial team raised scarcely a murmur.
I’ve been listening to the music of Alfred Schnittke since the 1980s, with occasional forays to the Wikipedia page to see if there have been any new snippets of information. On one of those visits, I spotted the photograph of the tombstone. The depiction of the bar of music of course an impression of horizontal grid lines, and the juxtaposition of the three elements almost gave me the grid on the spot. As it was, I did some quick calculations of lengths, and realised that FERMATA was 7, WHOLE REST 9 and fff 13 in its full form.
Mirror symmetry was ordained, and it was only a step to noting that the composer’s name and TOMBSTONE were the same length, from which the size of the grid emerged. Now, of course, it would be nice to include the word COMPOSER – and I did try for a while, but the placement of the thematic material really sealed all options off. But I squeezed WRITER and MUSIC in, even if it did feel a bit of a circumlocution.
Mirror-symmetry grids are always a bit odd – it’s very easy to end up with oddly-checked down entries, or serried ranks of across answers symmetrically opposite each other like politicians at a conference. But it all came together in the end.
Now let’s be honest here – this isn’t going to be the most obvious of themes, is it? What can we do to aid the solver? Well, there’s WRITER and MUSIC, of course. And this is a musical joke, which is the title of a piece by Mozart (Horse of the Year Show, as I recall, though they tended to fade out before the rather blatant jokiness), so we could give that too, by some thing like surplus letters in clues or wordplay. I can use up more clues if I stick with the German spelling, but not all, which may not be a bad thing as it would allow me normal clues for WRITER and MUSIC, as well as the American spelling and any proper nouns.
That really only left the title, which I’m sure I’ve seen elsewhere, but which seemed darkly appropriate.
I should add that, as noted by a contributor to fifteensquared, the puzzle appeared on the 21st anniversary of Schnittke’s death. I remember the announcement being made at the Prom that evening but I had entirely forgotten the date. It’s really rather a poignant coincidence.