A review of Time Will Tell by Donald Greig

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Time Will Tell
by Donald Greig
Thames River Press
2012, ISBN 978-0-85728-624-6, 204 pages

The only thing to complain about in Donald Greig’s Time Will Tell is the tiny print. Let’s hope future editions appear in a larger font, so as not to deter readers from this fascinating experience of the medieval music world. Time Will Tell is a cautionary tale about three “musical” people who mess up a great opportunity to bring an outstanding piece of music to public attention. Their shared flaw, misjudgment of other people, leads to the loss of the major work, and of opportunities for themselves.

(Warning: spoilers follow!)

The main characters are Andrew Eiger, an American musicologist teaching at an Ohio university; Emma Mitchell, British conductor of an eight voice “early music” choir, Beyond Compere, and Johannes (Jehan) Ockeghem, a distinguished choir director and composer who was treasurer to Kings Louis XI and Charles XIII of France. The story is told in the third person through multiple viewpoints, mostly Andrew’s and Emma’s. Their chapters alternate with excerpts from an early 16th century memoir by Geoffroy Chiron, musician, assistant and friend of Johannes Ockeghem.

The novel begins with a chapter of Chiron’s 1524 memoir of Ockeghem, presented as a Cambridge University e-book being downloaded in 2015. Most of the action takes place in 1997, however, at a conference in Tours to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Ockeghem’s death. Emma and Andrew attend, as Ockeghem is important to both of them. Her choir sings works by Ockeghem and his “godsons”, a younger generation of composers that includes Josquin Desprez, Compere, and others. Andrew is not only presenting a paper on Ockeghem, but is also hiding a big secret involving the composer which he intends to share with Emma.

Ockeghem, a kind, principled and charitable priest, mistakenly believed that others, like himself, operated from generous motives. He felt that music should be a collegial pursuit, with singers and composers collaborating on productions for God’s glory, not money, in a community under the patronage of the Church or King. It took him a long time to realize that his younger associate, Josquin Desprez, was, in Chiron’s words, “a prick.” Competitive and mercenary, Desprez was jealous of his peers, particularly Compere. His underhanded ways prevented the performance of Ockeghem’s last great work, the “Miserere Mei” motet for thirty-four voices.

Desprez, however, was not responsible for the motet being forever lost to humanity. The original manuscript burns in an archival fire due to a minor character’s negligence. Andrew’s copies are lost due to his and Emma’s poor judgment.

Six months prior to the Tours conference, Andrew was in the Amiens cathedral archives, attempting some research beyond his abilities. He examined book bindings and discovered, in a padded spine, a single sheet of music bearing the outline and instructions for a hitherto-unknown motet. An accompanying note by Geoffroy Chiron said that it was Ockeghem’s work. Eagerly, Andrew copied the sheet and returned it to its hiding place.

Andrew is convinced that if Beyond Compere performs the motet, he will be catapulted to fame and fortune, and leave the Midwest for the Ivy League. He imagines that fame, success and money will also fix his domestic problems. An surprise baby has upset the lives of Andrew and Karen, his wife. He leaves child care to Karen, who silently fumes over her dashed career hopes. Completely underestimating her anger, he concentrates on the motet. Despite his knowledge of medieval music, he can’t figure out why some of the notes sound wrong.

On the flight to New York City, the first lap on the way to Tours, a fat salesman looks over Andrew’s shoulder at the transcription he is working on. He sings it according to modern notational rules, which makes the problem parts sound right. At the conference, Andrew has a second stroke of good luck when listening to a musicologist interested in numerology – the idea that “every letter has a numeric value that lends to each word a particular property.” The name Johannes Ockeghem adds up to 9 squared and 8 squared. Andrew has an epiphany: the motet is laid out in parts for 9,9, 8 and 8. It’s definitely Ockeghem’s work!

Andrew is ungracious about these insights from men he regards as inferiors. Although he has been afraid to share his motet discovery with fellow musicologists, he has contacted Emma, saying that he has a piece of music that Beyond Compere might perform.

Emma is interested. Irritated at journalists who treat her as a curiosity because she is a woman conductor, she is determined to build on her choir’s success and take it to new heights. She has fallen into a romantic involvement with Ollie, one of the singers, but hasn’t analyzed their relationship because her many duties keep her busy. Ollie is older, a loud joker and drinker who does not share her joy in bringing historical music to life.

In a Tours restaurant, when Andrew reveals the motet to her and the group, she recognizes the composition’s potential and pictures herself taking an expanded choir to world class venues. She asks to borrow Andrew’s sole copy, so he hands it over, even though he has destroyed all earlier drafts of his arrangement. He believes the copy he made in Amiens is safe at home in Ohio.

That night, Ollie’s jealousy over Emma’s career plans comes to a head and they break up. She is so upset that she leaves Andrew’s manuscript behind in her hotel room. She excuses herself by telling herself that Andrew has other copies. As it turns out, he hasn’t.

The novel ends in 2015 with a performance by Beyond Compere, minus Ollie, in Talahassee, Florida. Andrew is now a tenured professor there, having relocated to be near his son. When Emma and Andrew meet again, after eighteen years, they feel a twinge of regret for what might have been, both romantically and musically, although both are happy enough with their lives. Although Andrew has given up Ockeghem to focus on the relationship between math and music, he is interested when Emma urges him to read the recently discovered celebrated Chiron memoir of Ockeghem, available electronically.

Later he downloads the e-book, and starts where we readers began.

We realize then, if we haven’t earlier, that everything Andrew had hoped for the “Miserere Mei” motet would have come true. If he and Emma had brought it to the world’s attention in the late 1990s, their discovery would have been celebrated again in the early teens of the 21st century during the world-wide excitement over the Chiron manuscript in which the motet is central. If anyone had doubted in 1997, that Andrew actually had a copy of the motet, the content of Chiron’s memoir would have proven Andrew right.

We aren’t shown Andrew’s reaction to this might-have-been. We do see though, that he is less self-centred, kinder, more fatherly and more collegial than he was eighteen years ago. His loss of the motet, back in 1997, began his personal transformation. Though Ockeghem’s motet is lost forever, the goodness that he exemplified still exists and is manifest in Andrew’s daily life.

Donald Greig, a singer, writer and lecturer in film studies and musicology, associated with the Tallis Scholars and the Orlando Consort, proves with this novel that talent in one artistic form often carries over to other forms. Time Will Tell is darkly humorous and rich with detail. The time shifts between the 15th and 20th centuries, and then the transition to the 21st, are smooth and clear. The fully-rounded major characters have distinctive voices and the personalities he invented for the 15th-16th century characters are vivid. Reading Time Will Tell, one feels that human nature hasn’t changed much through five hundred years.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2012, baico@bellnet.ca)