Welcome to Harmonia . . . I’m Angela Mariani. There’s a great deal that we don’t know about the fifteenth-century Flemish composer Alexander Agricola, but we do know that Agricola is not the name he was born with. We also know that he composed untexted music with thought-provoking titles like, “The blind person cannot judge colors,” and that some of his music sounds like written-down improvisation. Curious? This hour, we’ll hear secular song and instrumental music from the wacky world of Alexander Agricola. Then, we’ll sample the melodies of one of Agricola’s biggest influences in our featured release, “Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1,” performed by Blue Heron.
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Trionfo d' Amore e della Morte
Piffaro and The Concord Ensemble
Dorian, 2003 / B0000CERI2
Tr. 8 Cecus non judicate de coloribus (4:40)
Cecus non judicate de coloribus: “The blind person cannot judge colors.” A fantasy for three instruments by Alexander Agricola. Performed here on recorders by Piffaro from their 2003 recording, “Trionfo d'amore e della morte: Florentine music for a Medici procession.”
Our composer of the hour is the fifteenth-century south Netherlands composer Alexander Agricola. As for his dates, well…his death date is clear: whilst on an ill-fated voyage to Spain, he caught something called the “raging fever” (febris fervens) and died on August 15, 1506. When he was born, however, is somewhat more unclear.
Alexander was one of two illegitimate sons of a successful Belgian businesswoman and an administrator from Ghent named Heinric Ackerman. But there is only one payment on record to “Alexander Ackerman,” and other archival evidence pretty much always refers to him as “Alexander Agricola.”
So when and why did young Alexander decide to go trans-nominal? The German word, “Acker,” sounds like the English word “acre”, and it means “field.” So, an original Acker-man was likely to work in a field – perhaps as a ploughman or even as a farmer. And the Latin word for farmer is—guess what-- “agricola.” Alexander worked all over Italy and France during his career, so it would be understandable for him to Latinize his name for the sake of either his career, or just simplicity.
Let’s begin with an untexted piece by Alexander Agricola entitled “Pater meus agricola est,” now that we have a real inside line on the title, which translates literally as “My father is a farmer.”
Fretwork w/Michael Chance
Harmonia Mundi USA, 2006 / B01K8O1QP0
Tr. 6 Pater meus agricola est (6:37)
Fretwork performed Agricola’s Pater meus agricola est on its 2007 Harmonia Mundi recording entitled Agricola Chansons. Far from the standard rondeau or virelai of the composer’s day, this is a through-composed piece full of activity and contrast.
There seems to be reason to think that Alexander was a fiddle player. Whether played on the arm or the leg, the fiddle of his day was strung with plain gut strings, not wrapped in metal as it is nowadays; and a big fat plain gut string played with a bow is a very different animal from one that is covered in silver or copper. Some players will describe the sound as having more “chiff” at the beginnings of notes; others describe it as “funkier” than usual viols.
See whether you can hear what I mean in this setting by Agricola in 3 voices of the well-known tune Tandernaken. Lots of composers added voices to this tune, and one imagines it would have been an important part of a renaissance jam session. Agricola gives it a pretty funky bass part if you really listen, especially at the end…
Harmonice musices odhecaton
Harmonia Mundi USA, 2001 / B00005OB20
Tr. 6 Tandernaken (3:20)
From their 2001 recording entitled Harmonice musices odhecaton, Fretwork performed Alexander Agricola’s setting of Tandernaken.
Let’s move from 3 to 4 parts –to a piece that does have words—Alexander’s most widely-distributed song, found in 14 sources: Je n’ay deuil.
Its text is not a happy one - “I am not grieved, except because I am not dead. Should I not wish to die? Grief, which takes from me the comfort of all good things, Aims to seize my heart.” And so on. In the throes of suffering along, you might be able to hear that the piece has two musical parts that repeat in a pattern that defines the rondeau of the 15th Century, both a poetic and a musical form.
Cecus : colours, blindness, and memorial : Alexander Agricola and his contemporaries
Graindelavoix, Björn Schmelzer, director
Glossa, 2010 / B01K8OB65U
Tr. 10 Je n'ay deuil (8:08)
Alexander Agricola’s most widely circulated song, Je n’ay deuil, was performed by Graindelavoix on their CD Cecus : colours, blindness, and memorial : Alexander Agricola and his contemporaries, released in 2010 by Glossa.
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[Theme Music Bed: Ensemble Alcatraz, Danse Royale, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 / B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal]
You can hear highlights from recent and archival concert recordings of early music on Harmonia Uncut -- our biweekly podcast, curated and hosted by Wendy Gillespie. Listen online at harmonia early music dot org and through iTunes.
You’re listening to Harmonia . . . I’m Angela Mariani.
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:59 Midpoint Break Music Bed:
Alexander Agricola: Fortuna desperata
Ensemble Unicorn, Michael Posch, director
Naxos, 1999 / B000QQT2NE
Tr. 12 Garde vostre visage No.2 (:56)
Welcome back. We’re listening to music of fifteenth-century composer Alexander Agricola. Here’s one of his song settings, performed a cappella. It’s worth remembering, here, that the line between instrumental music and vocal music isn’t simply the presence or absence of text. This song could certainly be performed by one voice with instruments, or all instruments--but then of course you’d miss the words. Like Je n’ay deuil, which we heard a few minutes ago, En attendant is in the poetic and musical form of a rondeau, but its text is somewhat cheerier--more along the lines of“While I await my lady’s favor, I shall be loyal, heart, body and soul / and as long as I shall live I will serve no other…”
Ferrara Ensemble ; Ensemble Este der Schola Cantorum Basiliensis : Crawford Young, director
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1990 / B00000E6UO
Tr. 8 En attendant (4:10)
Alexander Agricola’s rondeau En attendant was sung by the Ferrara Ensemble, Crawford Young, director, on their 1990 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CD Chansons.
Many of Alexander Agricola’s untexted pieces are based on well-known tunes of his time. He set some tunes several times, and even wrote tune-based masses. Let’s listen to his settings of the tune Comme femme descomfortée, as interpreted by different performers. First, a very unusually scored 2-voice setting of Comme femme desconfortée, played very cleverly indeed by three instruments. One is the slower part, the tenor line of the original chanson: the other part – well, see what you think.
Mundus et musica : instrumental music in Spain and Flanders ca. 1500
Carpe diem, 2012 / B00A0HQW5K
Tr. 13 Comme femme (2:05)
I can just imagine a 15th-century musician hearing someone playing that tune and deciding to play along. From their 2012 Carpe Diem CD Mundus et musica : instrumental music in Spain and Flanders circa. 1500, that was the ensemble Qualia, performing Agricola’s 2-voice Comme femme desconfortée. Next . . . let’s see whether you can hear that slow-moving tenor line again, now sandwiched between two imitative playful voices, this time all on recorders.
Music from the court of Burgundy
Ciaramella, Adam Gilbert, director
Yarlung Records, 2009 / B0053O3YY2
Tr 11 Comme femme desconfortee (2:18)
That was Ciaramella, Adam Gilbert, director, interpreting Alexander’s three-part setting of Comme femme desconfortée on their 2009 Yarlung Records release, Music from the Court of Burgundy.
Here’s a four-voice setting of Comme femme – can you still make out the tenor line? It remains the same through all three pieces, though the effect is very different, both because of the number of parts-- and, the performers’ overlay on the music. In this setting, notice how the Comme femme tenor line, in triple time, plays against the three other parts that remain insistently in duple time.
Missa in myne zyn
Capilla Flamenca: Dirk Snellings, director
Ricercar, 2010 / B0042IQ1EA
Tr. 6 Comme femme (2:23)
The viols of Capilla Flamenca, Dirk Snellings, director, played the four-part Agricola setting of Comme femme desconfortée on their 2010 Ricercar CD, Missa in myne zyn.
To end our exploration of Agricola, here is a 6-part setting of one of the best-known tunes of the day, Fortuna Desperata. Three faster parts have been added to the original, sounding as though a few 15th-centry jazzers wandered in, heard the tune, and grabbed their instruments … Let’s hear Busnois’s original song first, then more or less the same three parts, to which three more have been added, a setting that has been attributed to Agricola.
Occelino: Popular music in Italy, c1500
London Pro Musica
Hyperion, 1986 / ?
S. 2 tr. 8 Fortuna desperata (1:25)
Fretwork w/Michael Chance
Harmonia Mundi USA, 2006 / B01K8O1QP0
Tr. 22 Fortuna desperata (3:06)
A little journey through time - we heard a 1986 recording of Busnois’ Fortuna desperata sung and played by the London Pro Musica for Hyperion’s Occelino: Popular music in Italy, c1500, followed by Fretwork playing Alexander Agricola’s 6-voice Fortuna desperata on their 2006 Harmonia Mundi USA recording, Agricola Chansons.
For our featured release this week, we turn to one of the most celebrated musicians of the fifteenth century, who happens to be one of Alexander Agricola’s biggest influences: Johannes Ockeghem. His surviving works include two dozen songs that craft French lyric poetry into beguiling, interwoven melodies. In 2019, Blue Heron released the first in a new series of recordings of these songs…of which we’ll sample two: Aultre Venus estes sans faille and S'elle m'amera.
Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1
Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe, director
Blue Heron, 2019 / B07ZWJ4TLJ
Tr. 1 Aultre Venus estes sans faille (4:59)
Tr. 6 S'elle m'amera (3:45)
Aultre Venus estes sans faille and S'elle m'amera. Two settings of French lyric poetry by Johannes Ockeghem, performed by members of Blue Heron, directed by Scott Metcalfe, from their 2019 release, “Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1.”
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Additional resources come from the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
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The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Wendy Gillespie.
Thanks to our studio engineer Michael Paskash, and our production team: Aaron Cain, Wendy Gillespie, LuAnn Johnson and John Bailey. I’m Angela Mariani, inviting you to join us again for the next edition of Harmonia.