[T]ruth must not be measured by time: for everie old opinion is not sound. Veritie is not impaired, how long so ever it be suppressed; but is to be searched out, in how darke a corner so ever it lie hidden. [T]ime bewraieth old errors, & discovereth new matters of truth.

—Reginald Scot, The discoverie of witchcraft (1584)

Suppose you were studying American history and found out that 200 mostly unknown Bostonians wrote brilliant symphonies during a 45-year period late in the 19th century. Your evidence for this historical anomaly is 300 musical scores published under different names. You read the historical literature on the subject and find that most of these composers wrote only one or two symphonies. You recognize three mysteries: that so many composers arrived on the scene in one period, that so many were exceptionally talented, and that so many of them quit it after one or two efforts.

You read the critical literature on the subject and discover a fourth mystery: that the symphonies these people composed were of a kind. They all drew from the same set of sources. They had similar musical themes. Every composer had studied Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and Chopin but not Mozart or Bach.

You investigate the composers’ backgrounds and find that when they were not writing symphonies, they were merchants, farmers, manufacturers, barbers, clerks, secretaries, preachers, soldiers, adventurers, country gents and government officials. The most celebrated composer of them all was not even from Boston but from a pig farming village across the border in New Hampshire. His will, a copy of which still exists, implies that he did not own any musical instruments or music books.

Further research reveals that recurring musical themes in the compositions reflect the talents of an obscure orchestra leader in London, whose musical innovations show up in the subtleties attending these symphonies. Yet none of these Bostonians ever went abroad.

To get a bead on how this situation might have come about, you read biographies of the purported composers. Try as you might, you can find no useful information. The outstanding composers of Boston were virtually unknown in their own time. Town records show little more than scattered entries in ledgers vaguely attesting to these people’s mundane existence. Neighbors who kept diaries did not mention their musical talents. The composers’ relatives did not mention their musical talents. The composers’ own surviving letters did not mention their musical talents. The only contemporaries who mentioned them were other composers, in the dedications attending their musical scores. Their texts offer no personal information. When the composers died, no one eulogized them.

Later biographers penned conjectures on how all these composers got their musical educations: “One of the local schoolhouses had a brass band; surely our composers got their love of music from high school band teachers.” “They must have picked up the obscure London conductor’s theories from conversations in seamen’s taverns on the wharfs.” Biographies include fanciful re-enactments of a ship captain attending a symphony in London and reporting to his drinking buddies in Boston the special compositional tricks used by the conductor. All the biographies struggle to re-enact the apparent story. None of them asks whether it is true.

Nor do any of them ask such questions as: “How could a semester’s instruction on the tuba explain the knowledge required to produce a symphony?” “How did all these composers manage to create such similar pieces?” “Why would inebriated seamen in a bar be talking about the nuances of symphonic composition and conducting?” “Where did these people learn to notate music?” “How could a busy shopkeeper find the time to educate himself to the highest standard of musical composition?” “Why did most of these composers write so few pieces?” “How could a town of 200,000 citizens produce 150 musical geniuses on a par with Beethoven?” “How come no one of the day reported meeting any of these people?” “Why did this era of brilliant composition go on for 45 years and then abruptly end?”

You go back to the historians, who tell you it was a “special era.” You think about the degree of artistic abilities of the inhabitants of your own town, your own neighborhood. You think about the histories of Australia, China, Russia, Chile and Norway. You cannot think of any time or place in history when one out of every thousand people were creative geniuses, all with vast and special knowledge, all bent on the same form of artistic expression, all while doing something else for a living, all while the rest of the town’s inhabitants didn’t bother to acknowledge their existence. Special era? It was an alien era. There must be some other explanation.

Then you find out about a musical genius who was a personal friend of the London director, who studied Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and Chopin but not Mozart or Bach, who wrote some symphonic exercises in his youth, who immigrated to Boston the year before the symphonies began to appear, and who died the year they stopped. He had no known occupation, but scattered records show that he was intimately connected with music and the Boston symphony. A dozen Bostonian writers of his day praised him as the most accomplished classical composer of the era, yet only a smattering of experimental compositions from the time of his youth in London survive.

Intrigued, you research the dedicatees of the symphonies and find that many of them are friends and family of the musical genius. You list the publication dates for all the symphonies and find that they lie along a temporal continuum. From the date of the musical genius’s arrival in Boston until the date of his death, eight to twelve compositions are published each year under different names. After his death, the volume of symphonies published in Boston contracts severely, and those that do reach the press are of inferior quality. A few years later, a collection of exquisite symphonies by one of the mysterious composers of the earlier era—the New Hampshire man—is published. The people funding the collection, it turns out, are unrelated to the New Hampshire man. Rather, they are the musical genius’s son-in-law and his daughter.

Biographers who encounter all this information stubbornly reject its clear implication. They insist that anyone who challenges the standard story must be a snob who refuses to believe that shopkeepers can be symphonic composers. They say it is self-evident that the composers are as claimed, because their names are on the title pages of the symphonies.

You nevertheless decide to take up the task of figuring out which symphonies were composed by the genius and which ones were composed by contemporaries he inspired. The task requires studying his ways and finding out which compositions do and do not share them.

All such a challenger of the orthodox stance need possess is an unbiased mind and a basic ability to reason. From there, it is simply a matter of evidence.

The story we will investigate takes place not in Boston in the second half of the 1800s but in London in the second half of the 1500s. During that time, the population of London was the same as it was in Boston in the latter half of the 19th century: on a growth curve from 150,000 to 300,000. There is a qualitative difference, though, because the literacy rate in late-1800s Boston was close to 100 percent, whereas the literacy rate in Elizabethan London was no more than 30 percent. The standard story requires that one out of 300 people in London who could read and write was a literary prodigy. Our aim is to sweep aside this fantastical point of view and find out what really happened.

We will find that Shakespeare did not suddenly burst forth from the head of Zeus and issue a masterpiece. The true author was 43 years old at the time. He had been writing for decades to reach the level of expertise required to produce Venus and Adonis. His output under the name Shakespeare was the pinnacle. What path did he take to reach it? What else did he write?

Elizabethan literature is famous for hidden and disguised authorship. Oxford’s Voices identifies (as close as can be determined) all the books of poetry, fiction and plays, and a fair number of the songs, written under others’ names that the hidden master wrote. If you approach this story as a fellow detective, I believe you will have a good time.