Alexander Agricola

Alexander Agricola

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Alexander Agricola was a Franco-Flemish
Franco-Flemish School
In music, the Franco-Flemish School or more precisely the Netherlandish School refers, somewhat imprecisely, to the style of polyphonic vocal music composition in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and to the composers who wrote it...

A composer is a person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition, for interpretation and performance, or through direct manipulation of sonic material through electronic media...

 of the Renaissance
Renaissance music
Renaissance music is European music written during the Renaissance. Defining the beginning of the musical era is difficult, given that its defining characteristics were adopted only gradually; musicologists have placed its beginnings from as early as 1300 to as late as the 1470s.Literally meaning...

. A prominent member of the Grande chapelle, the Habsburg musical establishment, he was a renowned composer in the years around 1500, and his music was widely distributed throughout Europe. He composed music in all of the important sacred and secular styles of the time.


As is common with composers of the period, very little is known of his early life. He was born in Ghent
Ghent is a city and a municipality located in the Flemish region of Belgium. It is the capital and biggest city of the East Flanders province. The city started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Lys and in the Middle Ages became one of the largest and richest cities of...

, as suggested by a recently discovered epitaph, written in 1538. Most of his life he spent in posts in Italy, France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 and the Low Countries
Low Countries
The Low Countries are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers, including the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany....

, though there are gaps where his activities are not known, and he seems to have left many of his posts without permission. He was a singer for Duke Sforza
House of Sforza
Sforza was a ruling family of Renaissance Italy, based in Milan.-History:The dynasty was founded by Muzio Attendolo , called Sforza , a condottiero from Romagna serving the Angevin kings of Naples...

 of Milan from 1471 to 1474, during the period when the Milanese chapel choir grew into one of the largest and most famous ensembles in Europe; Loyset Compère
Loyset Compère
Loyset Compère was a French composer of the Renaissance. Of the same generation as Josquin des Prez, he was one of the most significant composers of motets and chansons of that era, and one of the first musicians to bring the light Italianate Renaissance style to France.-Life:His exact place of...

, Johannes Martini
Johannes Martini
Johannes Martini was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance.-Life:He was born in Brabant around 1440, but information about his early life is scanty. He probably received his early training in Flanders, as did most of the composers of his generation...

, Gaspar van Weerbeke
Gaspar van Weerbeke
Gaspar van Weerbeke was a Netherlandish composer of the Renaissance. He was of the same generation as Josquin des Prez, but unique in his blending of the contemporary Italian style with the older Burgundian style of Dufay.- Life :...

, and several other composer-singers were also in Milan during those years.

In 1474 Duke Sforza wrote a letter of recommendation for him to Lorenzo de' Medici
Lorenzo de' Medici
Lorenzo de' Medici was an Italian statesman and de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic during the Italian Renaissance. Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent by contemporary Florentines, he was a diplomat, politician and patron of scholars, artists and poets...

, and Agricola accordingly went to Florence
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

. In 1476 he is known to have been in Cambrai
Cambrai is a commune in the Nord department in northern France. It is a sub-prefecture of the department.Cambrai is the seat of an archdiocese whose jurisdiction was immense during the Middle Ages. The territory of the Bishopric of Cambrai, roughly coinciding with the shire of Brabant, included...

, in the Low Countries, where he probably was employed as a singer. For the long period from 1476 to 1491 nothing definite is known except that he spent part of the time in the French royal chapel, and he must have been building his reputation as a composer during this time, for he was much in demand in the 1490s, with France and Naples
Naples is a city in Southern Italy, situated on the country's west coast by the Gulf of Naples. Lying between two notable volcanic regions, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, it is the capital of the region of Campania and of the province of Naples...

 competing for his services. In 1500 he took a position with Philip the Handsome
Philip I of Castile
Philip I , known as Philip the Handsome or the Fair, was the first Habsburg King of Castile...

, who was Duke of Burgundy
Duchy of Burgundy
The Duchy of Burgundy , was heir to an ancient and prestigious reputation and a large division of the lands of the Second Kingdom of Burgundy and in its own right was one of the geographically larger ducal territories in the emergence of Early Modern Europe from Medieval Europe.Even in that...

 and King of Castile
Crown of Castile
The Crown of Castile was a medieval and modern state in the Iberian Peninsula that formed in 1230 as a result of the third and definitive union of the crowns and parliaments of the kingdoms of Castile and León upon the accession of the then King Ferdinand III of Castile to the vacant Leonese throne...

. He apparently accompanied the Duke on his travels through his empire; by this time he was one of the most esteemed composers in Europe. He was in Valladolid
Valladolid is a historic city and municipality in north-central Spain, situated at the confluence of the Pisuerga and Esgueva rivers, and located within three wine-making regions: Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Cigales...

, Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

, in August 1506, where he died during an outbreak of the plague
Bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...

 on August 15 of that year.

Musical style

Agricola's style is related to that of Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century, and is often considered the most...

, especially early in his career, and towards the end of his life he was writing using the pervasive imitation characteristic of Josquin des Prez
Josquin Des Prez
Josquin des Prez [Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez] , often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance...

. While few of his works can be dated precisely, he does use many of the non-imitative, complex, rhythmically diverse contrapuntal
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent . It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period,...

 procedures more often associated with Ockeghem. Unlike Ockeghem, however, he was willing to employ repetition, sequence
Sequence (music)
In music, a sequence is the immediate restatement of a motif or longer melodic passage at a higher or lower pitch in the same voice. It is one of the most common and simple methods of elaborating a melody in eighteenth and nineteenth century classical music...

, and increasingly imitation in the manner of the other composers who were working around 1500 when the technique became widespread.

Agricola wrote masses
Mass (music)
The Mass, a form of sacred musical composition, is a choral composition that sets the invariable portions of the Eucharistic liturgy to music...

, motet
In classical music, motet is a word that is applied to a number of highly varied choral musical compositions.-Etymology:The name comes either from the Latin movere, or a Latinized version of Old French mot, "word" or "verbal utterance." The Medieval Latin for "motet" is motectum, and the Italian...

s, motet-chanson
The motet-chanson was a specialized musical form of the Renaissance, developed in Milan during the 1470s and 1480s, which combined aspects of the contemporary motet and chanson....

s, secular songs in the prevailing formes fixes
Formes fixes
A Forme fixé is any one of three fourteenth and fifteenth centuries French poetic forms, the ballade, rondeau and virelai...

 such as (rondeaux
Rondeau (music)
The rondeau was a Medieval and early Renaissance musical form, based on the contemporary popular poetic rondeau form. It is distinct from the 18th century rondo, though the terms are likely related...

 and bergerette
A bergerette, or shepherdess' air, is a form of early rustic French song.The bergerette, developed by Burgundian composers is a virelai with only is single stanza. It is one of the "fixed forms" of early French song and related to the rondeau. Examples include Josquin's Bergerette savoyene included...

s, other chanson
A chanson is in general any lyric-driven French song, usually polyphonic and secular. A singer specialising in chansons is known as a "chanteur" or "chanteuse" ; a collection of chansons, especially from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, is also known as a chansonnier.-Chanson de geste:The...

s), and instrumental music. Much of his instrumental music was based on secular music by Gilles Binchois
Gilles Binchois
Gilles de Binche , also known as Gilles de Bins , was a Franco-Flemish composer, one of the earliest members of the Burgundian School, and one of the three most famous composers of the early 15th century...

 or Ockeghem. Many of these pieces had become quite popular in the late 15th century.

Agricola is one of the few transitional figures between the Burgundian
Burgundian School
The Burgundian School is a term used to denote a group of composers active in the 15th century in what is now northern and eastern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, centered on the court of the Dukes of Burgundy. The main names associated with this school are Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois,...

 style and the style of the Josquin generation of Netherlanders who actually wrote music in both styles.

Above all the variants in his general musical style over his working life, Agricola himself wrote in a highly distinctive style, taking the mysteriously sinuous lines of Ockeghem as his point of departure. His music is often very busy and extraordinarily detailed, with repeated sequence, repetition of terse rhythmic and motivic units, and a desire to usurp the underlying pulse, sometimes seeming to border on the perverse, either by prolonging cadential figures to cadence
Cadence (music)
In Western musical theory, a cadence is, "a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution [finality or pause]." A harmonic cadence is a progression of two chords that concludes a phrase, section, or piece of music...

 on the "wrong" beat, or by shifting the metrical beat of some parts against others (e.g. the closing Agnus Dei of his extraordinarily extended Missa 'In myne zin features the cantus firmus
Cantus firmus
In music, a cantus firmus is a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.The plural of this Latin term is , though the corrupt form canti firmi is also attested...

 stated in equal notes of eleven quavers' duration each in first statement, followed by a statement of five quavers' duration each, or in the second Salve Regina
Salve Regina
The "Salve Regina", also known as the Hail Holy Queen, is a Marian hymn and one of four Marian antiphons sung at different seasons within the Christian liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The Salve Regina is traditionally sung at Compline in the time from the Saturday before Trinity...

 setting, offsetting part of the statement of the cantus firmus by a quaver for its entire duration, in both cases with the other voices proceeding in a more strict quadruple meter above.) Other "games" played in the music include posing puzzles of mode
Musical mode
In the theory of Western music since the ninth century, mode generally refers to a type of scale. This usage, still the most common in recent years, reflects a tradition dating to the middle ages, itself inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music.The word encompasses several additional...

 and musica ficta
Musica ficta
Musica ficta was a term used in European music theory from the late 12th century to about 1600 to describe any pitches, whether notated or to be added by performers in accordance with their training, that lie outside the system of musica recta or musica vera as defined by the hexachord system of...

 for the performers (e.g. the Kyrie
Kyrie, a transliteration of Greek κύριε , vocative case of κύριος , meaning "Lord", is the common name of an important prayer of Christian liturgy, which is also called the Kýrie, eléison ....

 of the Missa Le serviteur plays with the expectations of the very well known plainchant cantus firmus by setting up some knotty issues of the implied possibility of modal inflection with consistent extra flats.) The music is characteristically athletic in all voice parts, with the lower parts in particular featuring much that requires very fine singers, and not representing the normal simply harmonic function of the tenor-bass combinations used by most of his contemporaries. Often a highly elaborate set of quick motifs will spring unexpected from a previous slow-moving texture (e.g. the eruption of detailed duos beginning at Glorificamus te and climaxing at Adoramus te in the Gloria
Gloria in Excelsis Deo
"Gloria in excelsis Deo" is the title and beginning of a hymn known also as the Greater Doxology and the Angelic Hymn. The name is often abbreviated to Gloria in Excelsis or simply Gloria.It is an example of the psalmi idiotici "Gloria in excelsis Deo" (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest")...

 of the Missa In myne zin). His music was very highly regarded in its day, the very distinctive style leading to one contemporary commentator referring to it as "crazy", and another as "sublime".

Other Agricolas

There are other composers named Agricola who sometimes are confused with Alexander:
  • Georg Ludwig Agricola (1643–1676) (also an important writer)
  • Johannes Agricola
    Johannes Agricola
    Johannes Agricola was a German Protestant reformer and humanist. He was a follower and friend of Martin Luther, who became his antagonist in the matter of the binding obligation of the law on Christians.-Early life:Agricola was born at Eisleben, whence he is sometimes called Magister Islebius...

  • Johann Friedrich Agricola
    Johann Friedrich Agricola
    Johann Friedrich Agricola was a German composer, organist, singer, pedagogue, and writer on music. He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Flavio Anicio Olibrio.-Biography:...

     (1720–1774) (also a musicographer, organist and singing master)
  • Johann Paul Agricola (1638 or 1639–1697)
  • Martin Agricola
    Martin Agricola
    Martin Agricola was a German composer of Renaissance music and a music theorist.He was born in Schwiebus in Lower Silesia. His German name was Sohr or Sore....

     (1486–1556) (More important as a theorist and teacher)
  • Wolfgang Christoph Agricola (c1600 - c1659)

External links

  • Free access to high-resolution images of manuscripts containing works by this composer from Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music


  • Désir D'aymer. Love Lyrics Around 1500: From Flanders To Italy, Capilla Flamenca
    Capilla Flamenca
    Capilla Flamenca is a vocal and instrumental early music consort based in Leuven, Belgium. The group specialises in 14th to 16th Century music from Flanders and takes its name from the choir of the court chapel of Emperor Charles V...

    , 2007 (Eufoda 1369). Contains recordings of several secular songs by Alexander Agricola.
  • Missa In myne Zyn, Capilla Flamenca / Dirk Snellings, 2010 (Ricercar 306).
  • Cecus. Alexander Agricola and his contemporaries. Memorial, Colours & blindness, Graindelavoix / Bjorn Schmelzer, 2010 (Glossa GCDP32105). Contains recordings of songs and instrumental works by Agricola and contemporaries, and laments on the deaths of Agricola and Johannes Ockeghem.