Some years ago – probably the late Nineties – I read a music magazine in which the last article was an opinion piece of the music of Alma Mahler (as she’s known in the classical music world – née Schindler, if anyone is still wondering about the title of the puzzle), and how tragic it was that her husband had banned her from composing after their marraige. Towards the end of the article, the author cited the song that’s the subject of this puzzle, and decided it offered him a very high horse. And once he’d climbed to the topmost point, he denounced ‘the late, unlamented, Tom Lehrer.’
Memo to author: check facts, otherwise people might doubt the rest of your argument. Even now, Tom Lehrer is with us, and his passing when it comes will be greatly lamented. But he is 93, a slightly older contemporary of Stephen Sondheim (not only that, but Lehrer also considered writing a music theatre version of Sweeney Todd), and puzzles about living nonagenarians have a sort of Damocles sword above them.
I noted this to the setter of the recent Listener puzzle on Lehrer’s ‘The Elements’ and commended him on taking the risk. And then the proofs for this puzzle rolled in. (And then there’s a puzzle I’m clueing at the moment…)
Lehrer’s songs are accurate parodies in terms of the music (Alma takes the form of a Viennese waltz), while offering sly commentary and wonderful rhymes. Douglas Hofstadter consulted both Lehrer and Sondheim when writing his splendid book on poetry and translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot.
Here the rhymes for the husbands are felicitous, and generally the same length as the original names: that should cause some cross-checking issues. And the opening phrase falls neatly into two 12-letter halves. From such observations are grids made, and I was rather pleased with this one. It proved a little harder to work the letters of ALMA in left-to-right order across the grid, and I don’t really like the way they’re splayed.
But only nine misprints needed, and all friendly letters (thank you, Mr Lehrer) – and there’s the puzzle. It might have been a different challenge had Lehrer gone on to include one of the most significant of the ‘God knows how many between’. That was the painter Oskar Kokoschka.
There aren’t any videos of Lehrer performing the song, but you can hear him on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QL6KgbrGSKQ) while the lyrics can be found separately (https://genius.com/Tom-lehrer-alma-lyrics).