AGRICOLA: Fortuna desperata (Michael Posch/ Unicorn Ensemble) (Naxos: 8.553840)
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We are unclear as to the birthplace or the date of Alexandra Agricola's birth. Indeed he was known by so many other names that we even question his title. We do know, however, that he must have been a highly regarded musician, as in later life Royal Courts vied for his services. He may well have been born in Belgium, though the earliest fact of his existence finds him in Naples as a singer and composer in the early 1470's. He apparently stayed there for a number of years, then sometime in the 1480's moved to France where he was employed by the Royal Court. Agricola then tried to return to Italy, but, under pressure from France, the Italians returned him. Somewhat disgruntled he stayed there until the death of Charles VIII in 1498. He spent a period working in the Burgundian court until he was tempted by the King of Spain to move south. Again there appears to have been efforts to reclaim him for France, but five years later, in 1506, he died.
He was a prolific composer, though dates of composition are unclear, and at what point they were created in his career is unknown. Some of the church music, we may conclude, comes from his early career when he was working almost exclusively for the church in Italy, while the secular songs would probably have been written for the amusement of the French Royal Court.
That so much of his music has survived probably points to the fact that he was an extremely prolific writer. Though his early career, and therefore influences, was in Italy, he wrote more in a French style. The one major aspect was his lack of relating the type of music he was writing to the words he was using. He seems to have been more interested in creating music for its own sake, the use words being expected at that time. Among his works were complex Masses, and a large number of Motets. His secular songs - often about love, so far as the words were concerned - were all in French. To this was added a number of instrumental works, though the precise instruments that would have been used to perform them is unclear.
After 500 years the fact that our knowledge of him is sketchy is not surprising, but his works demonstrate one of the most important writers of the 15th century.
Despite titles that would inspire music of passion, Agricola was a very 'serious' musician, his music rarely happy. Much of it is slow moving, and though the texts dictate that they must fall under the 'Secular' heading, the general mood of the music is of a religious genre. Most of the songs are written for three voices, and most are brief in duration. His ability to work in this medium is undoubted, the skill with which he weaves the voices makes for a fascinating experience.
His instrumental works do provide a more varied melodic approach, Cecus creating some quite interesting tone colours.
In the final analysis this is invaluable for those researching early music, as it creates another example of the development of music in this period.
Ensemble Unicorn has developed a new look at the way Early Music is presented. They have drawn together leading musicians in this field of music, and with the help of the Austrian Government, have taken this period of music around the world. Ensemble Unicorn have undertaken a series of Early Music discs for Naxos, and has already received critical acclaim around the world.