Alexander Agricola A Secret LabyrinthWhen it comes to the music of the middle Renaissance, Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (ca. 1455-1521) is such a 500 pound gorilla in the room that most of his contemporaries have been forced out of the historical equation. However, since about 2000 some additional clarifications discovered in regard to Josquin have modified his profile, opening the window onto his world and making a bit more room for his fellow travelers: that the name "Josquin" did not represent one, but three middle Renaissance composers and that about half of the works attributed to his name over the centuries were not his at all. One of the most fascinating and dangerous figures from Josquin's time is Alexander Agricola (ca. 1446-1506), also, like Josquin, Franco-Flemish and plying his trade as composer in the courts of European nobles and royals. However, in comparison with Josquin, Agricola's music is like the difference between night and day.


Alexander Agricola Fortuna desperataAs in the case of many Medieval and Renaissance composers, there is no surviving image of Agricola's likeness, and biographical material is scant. To summarize, Agricola was born in Ghent; his real name was Alexander Ackerman, but he took on the Italian equivalent "Agricola" after the fashion of the time. His presence is first recorded as a singer at Cambrai Cathedral in 1475, and he hardly could have missed making contact with Guillaume Dufay, the greatest composer of his age and living out his last years at Cambrai, though stylistically Agricola seems to owe more to Johannes Ockeghem. Late 15th century France was constantly warring with various Italian city-states, and this eventually erupted into the First Italian War of 1494. Despite these conflicts, old letters show that Italian nobles and French sovereign Charles VIII were constantly passing Agricola back and forth behind enemy lines, and that during the 1490s Agricola actually spent a good deal of time in Italy, despite being employed by the French. In 1498, Charles VIII whacked his head on a door frame during a game of tennis and died swiftly thereafter, yielding the throne to Louis XII; the following year Agricola traveled back to Ghent as his mother had died there. By 1505, he was working in the court of prospective Spanish king Philip I of Castile, himself of Flemish birth. The following year, however, both succumbed to a "raging fever," interpreted in some accounts as being an outbreak of plague, but it was more likely an epidemic of typhus. A source reporting from the standpoint of 1530 mentions that Agricola was 60 years old at his death.

Alexander Agricola Missa le serviteurAgricola's surviving output is quite extensive, including much sacred, secular vocal, and even some instrumental music. His chanson Fortuna desperata was one of the most popular songs of the era. Though none of his mass settings are complete, what remains is often longer and more involved than the standard in his day -- his Missa "In myne zin" is one of the longest masses of the 15th century, despite lacking a Sanctus. In contemporary evaluations of his work, Agricola was called "the divine Alexander," and a 1503 document mentions that he could "make music shine clearer than the finest silver." However, another, later theorist mentioned that Agricola's music was "unusual, crazy and strange," and a writer in the 19th century commented that "he tends to write [in] a kind of surly, bad-tempered, dark counterpoint." Naturally, for ears having passed through the 20th century, that is one of the strongest attractions in Agricola. Contemporary German pianist and composer Hubertus Dreyer once commented, "I discovered Agricola in the late 1980s, through his Missa Le Serviteur. I tried to figure it out on the piano, but it was absolutely unplayable; not much easier than Boulez' Second Piano Sonata."

Anyone performing Agricola has to go back to the original prints and manuscript sources to perform it well. Although all of his music was edited for publication in 1970, the edition was not made very well. Note values were not converted to modern practice, making it difficult to read, and it is riddled with errors. Nevertheless, Alexander Agricola's harmonic richness and tremendous textural complexity is well-attested by the title of Paul Van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble's groundbreaking 1999 release, A Secret Labyrinth. Agricola's music is a widely varied labyrinth of great beauty and mystery in which it is easy for one to get lost.

Agricola massesPaul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble - Agricola: Fortuna desperata

János Bali, A.N.S. Chorus - Agricola: Missa "In Myne Zin" - Sanctus

Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble - Agricola: Je n'ay dueil

Michael Posch, Ensemble Unicorn - Agricola: Soit loing ou pres