The Devil's Dictionary, for SSAATTBB chorus and autoharp

The Devil's Dictionary sets selected entries from Ambrose Bierce's humorous compendium. There are 19 movements, including an introductory frontispiece and concluding colophon.

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) was born in Ohio, enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 19, and fought in a number of bloody and horrifying battles. After the war he moved to San Francisco, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life, working as a writer, satirist and journalist for the Hearst newspapers. He gained a reputation as a vehement critic. He divorced his wife after discovering evidence of her infidelity. Of his three children, one committed suicide after a failed romance and another died of alcoholism and pneumonia. At the age of 71, Bierce traveled to Mexico to observe the Revolution, and was never seen again.

Roughly contemporary with Mark Twain, Bierce also wrote satirically about human foibles. Unlike Twain's gentle humor, Bierce's was biting and vitriolic, dismissive of politicians, generals, the church, and the human race generally. The Devil's Dictionary started as occasional newspaper items with satirical redefinitions of common words. Many of them are still quoted. It was Bierce who first defined the Conservative as "a statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." Some definitions are accompanied by doggerel rhymes showing appropriate usage of the word. Eventually, the definitions were collected and published in book form.

View Sheet Music

YouTube playlist with scrolling score videos of 11 of the movements, taken from the premier performance by C4, conducted by Daniel Andor-Ardó:

For details of intended performance, and information about the non-standard autoharp techniques used, see the Performance Notes.

Text of the Selected Entries


To “move in a mysterious way,” commonly with the property of another.

Spring beckons!
All things to the call respond;
The trees are leaving
and cashiers abscond.


An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.


(from academe). A modern school where football is taught.


A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.


This thing Allegiance, as I suppose,
Is a ring fitted in the subject’s nose,
Whereby that organ is kept rightly pointed
To smell the sweetness of the Lord’s anointed.


To lay the foundation for a future offence.


A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.


A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.


That which sternly impels us in the direction of profit.

Sir Lavender Portwine, in favor at court,
Was wroth at his master, who'd kissed Lady Port.
His anger provoked him to take the king's head,
But duty prevailed, and he took the king's bread,


The coffin of a document; the scabbard of a bill; the husk of a remittance; that bed-gown of a love-letter.


A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.


One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.


A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.


A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.


Mistaken at the top of one's voice.


The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.


A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.