Authors: Donald Greig
Tags: #Literary Fiction, #Poetry, #Fiction/Suspense
Â© Donald Greig 2012Â
The moral rights of the author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.Â
All the characters and events described in this book are imaginary and any similarity with real people or events is purely coincidental.Â
A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.Â
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History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes
memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.
Marcus Tullius Cicero,
Pro Publio Sestio
, II, 36
For Tessa, of courseâ¦
The Memoirs of Geoffroy Chiron: Prologue
ed. Francis Porter
Frevier 6, 1524
Josquin was a prick. Everybody thought so.
âWhen I die,' Jehan once said, âthey'll probably ask him to write a lament for me. And he'll do it, the hypocrite. He's never said anything good about anyone his whole life.'
For Jehan to call anyone a hypocrite was strong language indeed. I liked Ockeghem; he was my friend, though I wasn't the only one who was encouraged to call him by his first name: it was always Johannes, or Jehan, never Ockeghem.
âNo one can spell Ockeghem,' he once told me, âso I've given up trying to correct them.'
And, of course, when Jehan died it was Desprez who wrote that beautiful lament. Even then, having written an apparently heartfelt and undoubtedly beautiful testament, Desprez's sarcasm and contempt for others was never far away.
It was written to be sung by five of us: me â Geoffroy Chiron â his friend; Loyset CompÃ¨re, the composer whom Josquin rated above all others, and everyone else thought merely good; Pierre Perchon, known as De La Rue by the Northerners; Antoine Brumel, the pederast who soon would be in charge of the Notre Dame choirboys (a post that suited him down to the ground); and Josquin Desprez himself, the greatest of all the new composers and the biggest arsehole you could ever hope to meet.
All of us were accomplished singers with the obvious exception of CompÃ¨re. In his early years he'd been able to get away with it, but he could never sing fast notes and often ended up on the slow
lines, despite reading music as if it were his native language. Burying his voice in the middle of the texture was one way to mask the rough tone; when we looked at the draft Desprez had prepared, it was obvious who would sing which part.
Desprez bustled into the
[song school] where we had agreed to meet, late as usual, and threw the copy onto the stand, shouting out instructions with nary a hello or an embrace. Then he counted us in and off we went. It was, inevitably, stunning, even at the first attempt. We were all touched that he'd covered up Loyset's inadequacies by giving him that simple tenor line with the requiem text itself. The rest of us sang the familiar words of Jehan Molinet's poem (we'd all agreed that it should be that text and no other) and Loyset blended as well as he could. The black notation Josquin had used, the seriousness of the occasion, and the beautiful balance he had created distracted us from looking too closely at what others were doing. That's why we didn't see what was coming.
The final section that named the four great composers gave Loyset time off before the final
Requiescant in pace
, yet, despite this contrived recovery period, he began to look worried. I soon realised why. Over the years Loyset's range had shrunk to one hexachord, which had been all that was required of him until now. Unaccountably his part leapt up an octave at the very moment when we were to invoke peace for the departed and sing our Amen in descending phrases, trailing away to nothing. Poor old Loyset had to sing a note he'd scarcely been able to get before his balls had dropped and which he now could probably have reached only if His Holiness himself had ordered them to be cut off. It was a terrible noise and brought to mind that ditty in which Loyset's voice was compared to the sound of a cat up a tree. I think it was Brumel who first giggled, a stifled, high-pitched squeak. Perchon snorted his derision, accompanied by a gob of snot that splattered onto the manuscript, by which time I'd also stopped singing and Loyset, scared as he was of Desprez, decided that laughter was his best defence.
And so the piece fell apart, leaving Desprez singing on his own, his small, angry, dark eyes even sterner than usual. He cursed, pulled the manuscript from the stand, wiped the snot off with his sleeve, and stormed out. And that was why we ended up singing a three-part Mass at Jehan's memorial in the church of St Martin of Tours, and why it was Jehan Molinet himself who read the poem as a tribute, rather than us singing that sweet musical setting.
The rumour went round soon thereafter that, as with many of Desprez's pieces, he was insecure about it and didn't want it performed in the first place: that what he was really doing was finding an excuse to pull out of the commission by staging a scene. I didn't really believe that and I'm not the only one who thinks the main reason he wrote it that way was to humiliate Loyset. Certainly I don't think there was anything wrong with the first draft we sang and, although I can't swear to it, I think it was exactly the same as the one printed by the Italian, Petrucci, some years later . Â
Deus qui das vindictas mihi et congregas populos sub me qui servas me ab inimicis meis. Et a resistentibus mihi elevas me a viro iniquo libera me. Propterea confitebor tibi in gentibus Domine et nomini tuo cantabo
[O God, who avengest me, and subduest the people under me, my deliverer from my enraged enemies. And thou wilt lift me up above them that rise up against me: from the unjust man thou wilt deliver me. Therefore will I give glory to thee, O Lord, among the nations, and I will sing a psalm to thy name.]Â
I'm sorry. I shouldn't have begun like that, but I had to unburden myself. Time is no longer my friend. Just this morning the doctor came to bleed my legs and, judging by his manner, I may not have long to live.Â
Desprez was as talented as he was troubled and if only he could have trusted in the abilities that the Lord God gave him, all of us â and I include Desprez himself â might have had a more enjoyable life.
Many things have changed: the King and his court no longer reside here in Tours but in Paris; Loyset CompÃ¨re and Josquin Desprez are both dead. A new era beckons and it is time to pay homage to the old one. So forgive my outburst and let me begin again, more calmly and appropriately to my subject: the life of Jehan Ockeghem, my mentor and patron in music and civil law, and the man whom I and many others have come to think of as our
the man who composed the grandest of all motets, his
Translator's note. In the interests of maintaining the flow of Geoffroy Chiron's account, I have chosen to avoid the use of footnotes and render his (very) occasional obscenities in forthright Anglo-Saxon equivalents. Chiron's background as a singer is nowhere more evident than in his quotations from the Psalms, which I have transcribed as they appear in his text, then adding my own punctuation and translations from the Rheims-Douay Bible. All other translations are my own. In many cases, Chiron's fading memory proves unreliable. Where dates of significant events can be corroborated I have provided them in square parentheses. As with all academic endeavour, I can claim copyright only on errors. To paraphrase Chiron, they are mine and mine alone. Â© 2012 Francis PorterÂ
, 1997: Columbus Regional Airport, OH, USA
The line of passengers up ahead in the Coach cabin stuttered and then stopped, and Andrew Eiger found himself in the First Class section, standing between two businessmen who were sipping on sparkling wine and chatting across the aisle. It was a relaxed, communal atmosphere here, where shared assumptions of warranted self-importance spawned easy, casual friendships. No wonder they called it âClub Class' in Europe, thought Andrew, as he passed through the curtains towards his seat: 20C. His travel agent had assured him he would be in the emergency exit row, but the frantic late check-in meant he'd lost his preferred seat and had to settle for second best. He hoped there would be no one reclining too far into his personal space, preventing him from working.
The plane looked to be quite empty. All the children were aboard, seated mainly to the front of the cabin where their crying would not disturb him. It reminded him of the trip to Karen's mother in Florida when he'd held John on take-off. The poor boy, already suffering from a cold, was fractious and fidgety, and the ascent and subsequent decompression had hurt his ears. As usual he seemed to find his father little comfort; yet Andrew was determined that, on this occasion at least, he would offer the same kind of meaningless assurances as the boy's mother might. When the fourth passenger had turned around and glared, however, he had given in to the inevitable and passed John into Karen's welcoming arms.
His itinerary for the next twenty-four hours was considerably more exhausting than it had been on that occasion. Ahead lay flights from Columbus to New York, then the red-eye to London's Heathrow, followed by a third short flight to Paris and finally a train to Tours. As if that wasn't enough, once he'd arrived he was to deliver a lecture, attend a concert in the evening by the early music group Beyond CompÃ¨re, and then meet with them afterwards to discuss what he'd cryptically (and he hoped enticingly) described as âan exciting collaboration'.
The lecture he could cope with â all he had to do was read it out loud â and the only demand of the evening's entertainment was to stay awake, jetlagged and sleep-deprived as he would be. The meeting after the concert, though, would require his full concentration, being more important than any job interview. He had to convince Emma Mitchell and the singers of Beyond CompÃ¨re to commit themselves to the first modern-day performance of a piece that he'd discovered. Upon it depended his imagined new life, the fantasy of which he'd refined over the past six months since the moment he'd discovered the manuscript stuffed into the spine of the leather-bound book in the archives of Amiens Cathedral.
An elderly woman was sitting in his seat.
âEr, I think I might be sitting there.' He held out his boarding stub for her to see. âPerhaps you're in another?'
She looked up sharply, avoiding his gaze and seeking the seat numbers overhead.
â20C.' Andrew pointed at the numbers printed next to the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign. â20C,' he repeated, showing her the stub once more. The woman glanced down at her lap, unclasped the catch on her handbag, and began to search inside.
âIs everything all right, madam?' asked the stewardess.
Immediately Andrew offered his defence, peeved by the assumption that the occupant of his seat was correct and that it was he who was mistaken.
âThe, um, the lady here is in my seat. 20C. So I was just letting her know. I need to work. That's why I got the aisle.'
âOf course, sir. I'm sure we can resolve this,' said the stewardess with a fixed, ingratiating smile that softened considerably as she leaned towards the old woman.
âIt's here somewhere,' said the old woman, raking through tissues, powder compacts, and sweet wrappers. âI had it earlier.'
Andrew leaned into the emergency exit seat as someone brushed past, and nonchalantly held his boarding slip directly in the stewardess's line of sight.
Here's the documentary evidence
, he wanted to say;
this is what you need to consider, not the woman's unreliable memory
. If the airline had made a mistake and double-booked them in the same seat, then he would insist on an aisle seat somewhere else. In First, if necessary. He couldn't possibly work in the window seat; he'd be too cramped. And he
to work. Although he'd written the lecture for tomorrow, he needed to tidy up the text and add something that had come up that very day in his âMedieval and Renaissance Music' class.
âHere it is,' cried the old woman, triumphantly holding up her boarding pass.
âThere you go.' The stewardess scanned it quickly. âAh, 28C.'
Despite there being no acknowledgement of his innocence, Andrew was relieved that he would not have to take the matter any further.
âYour seat is further back, but I'm sure the gentleman wouldn't mind switching, seeing as how you're settled and all.' The stewardess turned to him and smiled, a little too sweetly for his liking.
âWell, um, actually, I did choose this particular seat. For good reason. I wanted to be in a seat where the one in front couldn't recline too far and stop me from working. I've got to work, you see. I have to give a lecture. In Tours. France. Tomorrow. Well, less than tomorrow really. Less than twenty-four hours from now, anyway. So, you seeâ¦' He shrugged in a way that he hoped expressed mutual agreement but, judging by the two women's reactions, he'd failed to convince them.
âWell, if that's the way you feelâ¦' The stewardess kept the final part of her sentence to herself.
âYes,' added the old woman, in an aggressive endorsement of the stewardess's unspoken criticism. Grabbing the back of the chair on which he was leaning, she heaved herself up unsteadily â and, in Andrew's opinion, over-dramatically. His field of vision was filled momentarily with a cloud of grey hair, and he jerked back just in time, narrowly avoiding a head butt from the old woman. Caught off-balance, he grabbed the open locker overhead and the tines of the lock bit deeply into his palm, drawing blood. He cried out in pain and the stewardess, who was leading the old woman to the back of the plane, turned around.
âThere's no need for melodrama, sir,' she said tartly. âYou've got your seat. And I don't think it would have been too much trouble for you to sit somewhere else. I'll bring you a form if you want to make a complaint.' She turned on her heel and wrapped a consoling arm around the woman who was shaking her head and muttering.
Andrew examined his palm: two puncture wounds from the metal lock, as if an animal had sunk its fangs into his right hand. He was sucking the wound to staunch the bleeding when he became aware of a younger woman standing close to him, peering hopefully at the number above his seat.
âI'mâ¦' she said, indicating the window seat. He let her through and then took his own seat. It was still warm from the previous occupant and he reached up with his damaged hand to shut off the narrow jet of accusatory air pointed at his face. The incident had left him feeling unfairly treated. Should he complain? Or, perhaps better than that, he could get his wife to write a letter for him. Early in their relationship, Karen had entrusted him to deal with everyday bureaucratic mismanagements. Thus problems were his to solve, and compensation for him to pursue â but he'd proved himself inadequate at both tasks. He always seemed to rub people up the wrong way, his tone pitched uncertainly between exaggerated grievance and obsequious inadequacy, whereas his wife, trained in psychology, possessed some magical insight into human behaviour as well as reserves of feminine empathy which endeared her to most service industry workers and assured willing reparation. Nowadays, with his wife acting as nominal head of the family, they received due apology together with the occasional upgrade and Andrew found himself wanting mistakes to be made so Karen could apply herself and corrective forces be summoned. His role in such situations was to stand haplessly behind her, not so much a silent supporter as a symbol of her misfortune, a role that required no effort at all, his vacant inadequacy apparent to all.
He'd hoped things might change when his son, John, was born. Holding the baby in his arms for the first time, tenderly, carefully, he was distracted first by the tiny, wrinkled feet. âJohn,' he said. They'd known it would be a boy and had agreed on the name â coincidentally the name of Karen's paternal grandfather, and Johannes Ockeghem â but Andrew saw no likeness to either, only the eyes tightly closed against a world wherein it was his responsibility to provide safety. He knew immediately that he would protect John, would shield him from the taunting and bullying that he himself had suffered silently as a child. He felt an emotion he'd never experienced before and for which he had no name: a thick bubble of anxious love that burst inside him. And then he'd dropped the baby. He'd heard the story countless times since, first recounted by Karen to his in-laws at Thanksgiving. She'd told it with evident fondness and, for a moment, he had thought himself forgiven. He might have been, but later that evening the anecdote was picked up and circulated amongst neighbours and friends, along with crackers and onion dip (âMade with a tin of real Campbell's soup') until Andrew had almost begun to believe that the story was about somebody else. When a friend of the family had related the episode, unaware that he was telling it to the subject himself, Andrew had realised that, from this single incident, an enduring myth had been created: his childcare skills were not to be trusted. What had been lost in the re-telling was the fact that no harm had come to his son. Blinking away his misty vision, Andrew reacted as he never had in softball or football games where he was always the last to be picked â he'd caught the falling baby, who had neither murmured nor complained.
With boarding nearly complete, he was relieved that the spare seat next to him was still empty so he could spread out his papers. He felt vindicated for standing his ground.
âHowdee,' said a voice. âWell, things are gonna get a little bit snugger now!' A heavy belly was thrust into Andrew's face as a large figure stretched up to deposit his bag in the overhead locker. The face leered down at him and a ham-like hand was proffered. Andrew offered his in return but, rather than the expected handshake, he was hoisted onto his feet, his injured palm screaming in protest.
âSorry, fella, but I'm in there.' The red-faced man indicated the middle seat and then waggled his fingers at the woman by the window. She smiled back and retreated into her magazine. The huge man squeezed his body into the narrow confines with some difficulty and the woman turned away to accommodate the huge bulk.
âLooks like she won't be joining in the conversation then.' The man gave Andrew a conspiratorial wink. Andrew had no intention of conducting any such exchange with his new neighbour. But politeness needed to be observed, and might well be his best strategy. The space he'd momentarily envisaged had shrunk considerably and working on his laptop would be impossible; the man's broad shoulders were simply too wide for the airline seat and, with the armrest swamped by the spill of his waist and his fleshy forearms, it was impossible for Andrew to avoid physical contact. He could feel the damp warmth of the man's body gusting through his shirt, and a vague reek of socks and cheap deodorant made him wish that he'd left the air vent fully open.
âFoster. Earl Foster. But you can call me Earl,' said the man, trotting out his well-polished introduction.
âAndrew Eiger. I have a lot of work to do, so I probably won't be talking much.'
âWhat kind of work?' said Earl, ignoring the hint. âI'm in sales. Extruded plastic. This kind of stuff.' With a meaty forefinger, he tapped the seat-tray and then the plastic housing for the overhead lights and air vents.
âAnd this stuff,' he added, tapping his head. âBoth solid. Both my business.' He chuckled at his own patter. âYou?'
âEr, musicology. The study of music, that is. Music history and music theory.' Andrew hoped for once that it sounded duller than it was, and that his career afforded his neighbour no conversational comeback.
âHey, buddy. That used to be my thing too. Well, not the musicology bit. That was boring. To me, that is,' Earl added quickly. âI was a music major. Trombone.'
If Earl was involved in music in any way at all, then he had to be a brass player, thought Andrew â one of the clowns of the orchestra given to drinking games and horseplay. They were the ones who offered nothing in music history classes other than the occasional supposedly witty one-liner; they were the people who laughed at early music, and medieval music in particular, the ones who thought music began when the trumpet got valves. An oaf, in other words; one who laughed at historians and theorists.
âOh. Trombone?' Andrew tried desperately to think of some way of closing down the conversation. âDo you still play?' he asked, hoping the answer was no.
âSure. If you've got the money,' said Earl, laughing loudly. He slapped his broad thighs and then Andrew's knee. Andrew, who never paid much attention to the safety demonstration, found himself fervently wishing for it to begin, if only to quieten down the garrulous salesman. He reached under the seat in front and pulled out his briefcase to signal his intention to work, flicked through his papers and withdrew the conference proceedings, a copy of his lecture and the familiar blue folder.
âPlease stow your briefcase right under the seat in front of you, sir.' It was the stewardess again.
âI was onlyâ¦' he began. But she had swept away to the front of the cabin, closing the overhead lockers as she went.
âShe got ya!' said Earl, chuckling. âShe got ya, didn't she?'
âWell, it was a bit unnecessary,' remonstrated Andrew. âI was just about to put it away.'