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The Instrumental Music of Alexander Agricola

 

Raitis Grigalis - baritone

Baptiste Romain - Renaissance violin

Uri Smilansky - viola d'arco

Elizabeth Rumsey - viola d'arco

Kirsty Whatley - gothic harp

Gawain Glenton - cornetto

Marc Lewon - lute, gittern, viola d'arco; direction

 

When Agricola died in 1506 it did not take long for him to become known as one of the „Old Masters“. His compositions were held in high esteem and in the beginning of the 16th century they were already counted among the canon of examples for good and sophisticated counterpoint. He did not only compose masses, motets, and chansons, as was customary in his time, but – as a member of the first generation of instrumental composers – also a substantial number of untexted pieces, which due to their particular construction where obviously written for instrumental performance. He developed a genuine musical rhetoric for his textless compositions which in this field reaches much further than the experiments of his otherwise congenial colleagues Josquin Desprez and Heinrich Isaac.

 

Agricola’s style was not only distinguished by his refined counterpoint, it was also regarded by his contemporaries as “unusual, crazy, and strange”. His way of developing little motifs along a whole composition, the way his compositions unfurl like a root system – a “rhizome” (Fabrice Fitch) – and the way this maze matures into a structure when stepping back as a listener is ideal for filling a textless piece with meaning. This, however, also meant that Agricola ventured into uncharted territories of musical expression which must have appeared strange to his contemporaries: He cultivated a “dark style” which could only be understood by experiencing his music, rather than analysing it. This was maybe also part of the reason why he titled one of his grandest and most unusual instrumental compositions as “Cecus non judicat de coloribus” – “The blind may not pass judgement over colours”.

 

This unique composition functions at the same time as point of departure and theme for the concert programme at hand, which includes ingenious adaptations of famouns chansons as well as purely instrumentally conceived works. Apart from a number of premiered pieces – amongst them also a composition newly attributed to Agricola by Fabrice Fitch – the programme features the tongue-in-cheek “Pater meus Agricola est” (“My father is a ploughman” = “My father’s name is Agricola”) and an untitled “teamwork-composition” which Agricola apparently composed together with the great Johannes Ghiselin. In performance these pieces will be heard as part of larger “suites” which follow a dramaturgical line and produce a plausible context for the individual works. The chansons which inspired Agricola to his instrumental reworkings will be sung in between the suites to give the audience the chance to relive Agricola’s process of adaptation and to fully enjoy this aesthetic experience.

 

With Fabrice Fitch Ensemble Leones was able to engage an internationally renowned specialist on Agricola, who apart from his musicological expertise has made a name for himself as a composer on Agricola’s themes and motifs with his “Agricologies”. Fitch composed two new “Agricologies” specifically for Ensemble Leones one of which is dedicated to David Fallows. These new compositions do not only represent a metaphorical extension of Agricola’s influence into the present day, but also actualise his oeuvre for the modern concert audience.

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