"Midrash" by Steve Bachman and George Barany (July 2014)


My idea for this puzzle was to use each of the four words MAJOR, MINOR, FLAT and SHARP as a part of a phrase having nothing to do with music. Not terribly clever and probably not original, I thought. But a check of Jim Horne's database,, did not turn up a similar idea. Thus, the idea had not been used in the New York Times, at least, within the past twenty years. Good enough for me!

I began thinking of phrases, and almost immediately the possibility of using SHARP_WORDS, MINOR_SCUFFLE (or MINOR_SKIRMISH) and MAJOR_BATTLES (or MAJOR_CONFLICT) presented itself. Unfortunately, I could not come up with a phrase using FLAT to complete the set. Maybe I should have gone in another direction at that point. But I settled on FLAT-OUT_WAR even though I knew it wasn't very good. (I did learn there is an obscure boardgame with that phrase as its title. At least, I'm not the first person to ever utter the words.)

So I knew before creating a grid or filling in a single square that my theme was deeply and irreparably flawed. Still, I loved the idea of a "double theme" of music and the escalation of a conflict.


The four themed phrases depict a developing conflict and are placed from top-to-bottom on the grid in order of increasing intensity.

My reveal at the puzzle's center (ABCDEFG) and its clue allude only to the musical aspect of the theme: to the seven notes used in the Western musical scale and to the four words that are combined with these notes to identify key signatures. I leave it to the solver to notice how the escalation of a conflict is depicted, and the double meaning of the puzzle's title.

The clue to the reveal, "noted septet and a hint to the first parts ...," points pretty clearly to the musical theme. I hope solvers might at least briefly consider as an answer the name of some famous musical ensemble.

Clues to each of my four themed phrases are meant to describe a conflict-related phrase in a straightforward manner, but each contains a sneaky hint to the musical theme: disharmonious, low-key, cacophonous and full-scale.


I had fun with the theme and it is the sort of thing that appeals to my taste. Ultimately, of course, it is up to each solver to decide how successful it is. I am pleased with the feedback I have had from friends and others. Some experienced and accomplished constructors who looked at beta versions of the puzzle felt that I had tried to cram too much into it, and would have been better off without the double theme. Certainly, I could have come up with something that didn't require the weak phrase "flat-out war."

I was privileged to receive feedback from a very talented group of beta-testers (listed on this puzzle's main page). My thanks to George for prevailing upon them to critique my puzzle, and to each of them for generous and valuable input. I reworked many of my clues in response to their helpful advice. None of them are to blame for the finished product, however. Despite their suggestions, I stubbornly declined make changes to my grid or its fill.  

GB adds:  What can I add? Steve is one of the most brilliant, courageous, and stubborn people I've ever met. Please read his biosketch to get oriented. Back in February, our group mentored Steve through numerous iterations of Papa Go Seek, to the point where the puzzle finally posted on our website is, in my opinion, every bit as good as much of what you see published in the MSM.  After exchanging many phone calls and e-mails, I finally got to meet Steve in person at his Shoreview home in order to discuss the finishing touches of that puzzle in person. I was blown away by his honesty, humor, and lack of sentimentality with respect to an increasingly challenging health situation, i.e., the management of Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) while continuing to be a devoted family man and pursuing his myriad interests. It was on that visit that Steve first pitched the "escalation" idea, and I wholeheartedly encouraged him to develop it. I was absolutely convinced that this had a real shot to be published in the New York Times, or perhaps Chronicle of Higher Education, and wanted to marshall the full intellectual firepower of our eclectic group (many of whom has strong musical bona fides) to help Steve achieve this dream. Check out the roster of people who I was able to recruit for this purpose—to a man or woman, they were enthusiastic about the idea but also had many specific suggestions on how Steve could "close the deal."

On May 1, 2014, Steve had had enough of our kibbitzing, and put his puzzle, clues, and cover letter into the mail.  Seven weeks later, he was ecstatic to receive an e-mail from Will Shortz's account, under the signature of Will's assistant Joel Fagliano. The theme was described as "ingenious ... a near miss," and closed with "Keep up the good constructing and we look forward to seeing more of your puzzles in the future." Steve and I then discussed his options, including revamping the puzzle and/or trying other outlets. Steve felt that he had already devoted enough time and energy to the project, and the fact that you see the puzzle on our web site is an honor for us.  I opted to time its release to coincide with Steve's birthday, and to keep my editing to the absolute minimum.  This fulfills Steve's original vision, complete with non-breakfast-test and/or obscure fill (ATAXIA; EL_OSO) and quirky clues (pick your own favorites). For our cover art, we investigated many images [I  advocated doing something with Rossini's Le si¸ge de Corinthe, the overture of which contains the composer's trademark "escalation" (crescendo)], but you'll have to agree that the Vietnam War graphic of an American soldier relaxing with his guitar is pretty near perfect.

One day earlier had been the Yahrzeit of my father—a man who devoted his entire scientific career to understanding neuromuscular diseases, and who would have enjoyed immensely discussing ... and even debating ... the problems of the world with Steve. As a Holocaust survivor and refugee from the Hungarian Revolution who was always trying to catch up, my father was a serious man, but he had a soft spot for music and the Marx Brothers.  Hence, keeping in mind the theme of Steve's puzzle, it is only fitting to close my comments with this 2-min clip from the wonderful anti-war comedy Duck Soup.

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To see how Steve presented this to the regular readers of his Bachblog, click here and here.

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