Alexander Agricola


Born: 1446 Died: August 15, 1506
Franco-Flemish composer and viol player Alexander Agricola was one of the main figures among composers in the early middle Renaissance, his popularity being counted in his time as second only to that of Josquin. Agricola's birthdate is adjudged to 1446 owing to the text of a motet, written more than 30 years after he died, which identifies Agricola as 60 years of age at death. This estimate, however, is debatable and could be off by some years. The place of his birth has been established incontestably as Ghent, and his true name was Alexander Ackerman, later Latinized as "Agricola" in keeping with a trend of that time. Agricola isn't mentioned in any known documents until 1475, when his presence is recorded in Cambrai Cathedral, along with his earliest known composition, the motet Gaudent in celis. Nearly two decades pass until he is referred to again, in a letter of French king Charles VIII to Florentine noble Pietro de Medici, requesting Agricola's return to the French court in June 1492. Documents show that Agricola was loaned out in such fashion to the Florentine and Neapolitan courts throughout the early 1490s, notwithstanding the influence of Girolamo Savonarola and the outbreak of the First Italian War. It is surmised that he returned to Ghent in 1499 on the occasion of his mother's death, and in November 1505 Agricola joined the court of Burgundian born heir to the Spanish throne Philip I of Castile. Unfortunately, in August 1506 Agricola fell prey to the same "raging fever," probably typhus and not the black death which is sometimes given as cause, which claimed his employer a mere month later.

It is not known where, or with whom, Agricola gained his musical education. The notion that he spent some time in the Milanese court chapel in the early 1470s, which would have brought Agricola into direct contact with the "Milanese"Josquin, is not reliable. Agricola's more certain connection to the French court of 1490 and before would have brought him into the orbit of Johannes Ockeghem, and this seems to make more sense in light of Agricola's own stylistic preferences. About those preferences, musicologists are divided as to whether Agricola's unique approach represents a radical or conservative viewpoint in relation to his contemporaries, but the vacillating fortunes of his most famous colleague, Josquin, have tended to retroactively affect this evaluation. In his own time and in the sixteenth century to follow, Agricola's work was considered "unusual, crazy, and strange." Nonetheless, it was held in very high regard; a cycle of Agricola's mass settings made up the sixth printed volume of polyphonic music devoted to a single composer, issued by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1505. Among his eight surviving mass settings, his Missa "In myne zin" is one of the longest and most extensive of the era, even though it lacks the "Sanctus." Agricola contributed more than 80 secular songs and instrumental works to the repertoire. Of these, the six-part song Fortuna desperata, the four-part Je n'ay deuil, and the three-part Rondeaux En actendant were probably the best known in their time. Most of Agricola's secular works were probably composed before 1480.

Agricola's work appeared in a highly problematical modern edition in the 1960s; it does not upgrade the note values to modern standards, among other concerns. This is probably the reason why his music is so seldom performed and recorded, even though in terms of quantity, quality, and stylistic consistency Agricola's output is comparable to that of his probable master, Ockeghem.

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