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The Revenge of Agris Culturovics

Musicologists the world over are reeling with excitement about the discovery of a concerto for the rare combination of bass tromba marina, bass viol and barouche. It is the work of the long forgotten Latvian composer, Agris Culturovics (?1678-?1763). Culturovics was born in the coastal city of Liepāja, the 27th child of the bass singer and conch (or bucina marina) virtuoso Janis Culturovics and his wife Tatjana.

Fig. 1. Believed to be Janis Culturovics playing his alto conch by the sea at Liepāja.

Neither the date nor year of Agris’ birth are known for certain as his parents had given up recording such things by the time he was born. This would suggest that he was among the later additions to the family, the surviving members of which (some authorities say 17, others 13) were given an exceptionally rudimentary initial musical education by their father. Such was Janis’ expertise as a teacher that even in later life few of his offspring would have been able to tell the difference between a conch and a contralto. Most of them therefore became successful music critics. Agris, however, showed a (very) marginally more marked musical ability from a young age; by the time he was ten he had written a number of works for bass voice and conch along with a few other things. On 4 February 1690 Janis was trying to perform one of these pieces, a fugue in motum contrarium in which he was taking both parts simultaneously, when he dropped dead, uttering to the world as he did so the immortal command – ‘Foster my son’s genius!’ Or at least it is thought that is what he said: there were no witnesses to the tragedy, the rest of the family having fled the performance, as was their customary practice. 


More to get Agris out of her hair than anything else, after his father’s death his mother packed him off to the conservatoire in Riga, where he became attracted to and decided to study another instrument with nautical connotations, the tromba marina, an instrument with a convoluted history that we cannot embark on here (see fig. 2).

Georgia Italic is a delicate font and takes inspiration from calligraphy. Use it to emphasize small sections of text in paragraphs.

Fig. 2 – Believed to be Agris Culturovics playing the bass tromba marina (c. 1687)

However, one little known fact about the instrument is that it comes in various sizes from treble to great bass (a 32’ instrument) and Agris devoted himself to mastery of the instrument as no one had before him, or indeed has bothered to since. During his 17 years at Riga Conservatoire a stream of works for tromba marinas and conches of all shapes and sizes poured from his indefatigable pen. As a memorial to his father, Agris also composed a Requiem for 15 bass voices and a large ensemble of bass tromba marinas and bass conches. The first performance at St Herbert’s Cathedral, Liepāja on 13 November 1699 is said to have profoundly moved auditors, most of them out of the cathedral, where they burst into tears. Accounts that claim that these tears were accompanied by hysterical laughter have never been substantiated.


By 1707 Riga Conservatoire was understandably somewhat sick of the sight of Agris Culturovics, not to mention the sound of his interminable musical outpourings, which he would each year persuade innocent, newly arrived students to perform. One morning in July he was de-fenestrated by the viola da gamba faculty, fortunately (in the charitable view; others had – and have- a different opinion) sustaining no damage to his person since he landed in a deep pile of horse manure. Culturovics got the message, but the experience would leave him with a profound hatred of the viol and viol players, which, as we will see, he was to put to good use. 


Forced out into the world for the first time, Culturovics made his way to the small state of Battenberg-Kuchen-Battenburg, famous for being the sole electorate in north Germany to have been by-passed entirely by the 30 Years War. For some months Culturovics eked out a tiny living in the capital Weisskätzen selling the horse manure he had astutely imported following his misadventure in Riga. Few in B-K-B, he found, were interested in (or had even heard of) the tromba marina or the bucina marina, as the locals, being German, of course insisted on calling the conch. Eventually, however, Agris managed to gain a place as a castrato in the chorus of the Elector Georg Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Eugene Battenberg-Kuchen-Battenberg XXXVIII’s (1677-1708) Kapelle, an organisation notable only for the lack of discrimination it displayed when employing musicians. It took only a very few contorted faces on the part of Culturovics for realisation to dawn that – put colloquially – no way was he a castrato, a point underlined by the cries that had not infrequently been heard coming from the maids’ quarters since Agris had arrived to live in the Elector’s palace. Faced once more with destitution, Culturovics now hit on a brainwave that he hoped would ingratiate him with the Elector. One of  Elector Georg’s greatest pleasures was riding in one of his many barouches, of which Fig. 3 is an illustration of one his particularly stylish models.

Fig. 3 A State Barouche (c.1703) belonging to the Elector Georg… oh, fill the rest in for yourself.

Culturovics’ idea was ingenuous in  its simplicity. The Elector was always at his most relaxed and congenial while taking a ride. Why not introduce him to some of the composer’s music during the course of just such a ride? Culturovics broached the idea with the Elector’s Kapellmeister Kevin Bach, a six times twice removed half cousin of the famous Johann Sebastian. Bach agreed to help and was eventually able to tell Culturovics that the Elector had agreed to have two musicians in his barouche. Agris duly selected two kitchen lads he had bribed into learning to play the conch (don’t ask how), the work being a melifluous adagio of his for alto and tenor conch. The party set off and at first all went well. The Elector was lulled by the pleasant sound (don’t scoff - it was probably pleasant enough if you’re a tone-deaf Elector) and the day was pleasingly warm. Too warm, as it turned out, since it was not long before the Elector, a beatific smile having spread over his face, fell asleep. It was now disaster struck. A heavy man (of course), the Elector fell into the door, which being insecurely fastened burst open, in the process hurling the Elector out of the barouche and down a rocky slope, where he breathed his last.


All hell now broke lose throughout B-K-B. The death of their beloved leader threw the B-K-Ber’s into paroxysms of grief and emotional turmoil (well, it didn’t really, but I just wanted to write that) and Agris Culturovics was thrown - you may suggest somewhat unfairly – into Weisskätzen’s very nastiest prison. It was after ten years incarceration here that Culturovics composed what is now being seen as his masterpiece – yes, we have got there at last, impatient soul – the concerto for bass tromba marina, bass viol and barouche. Half crazed, but with plenty of time of his hands, Culturovics planned the work in 73 movements and giving a timing for the piece of 4 days 26 hours and 5 minutes, the time he calculated it takes to drive a largish barouche from Weisskätzen to Dresden. The writing for both string instruments was designed to be as devilishly virtuoso as possible, particularly in the case of the viol, into the part for which he poured all his vitriolic hatred of the instrument and its players. After 18 months the work was complete and the manuscript smuggled out of the prison. The sensational story of this uniquely awesome composition was soon all over town and arrangements were made for the work’s premiere, scheduled to take place from 18 August 1719.


The great day dawned fine, if a little blustery. Inside the barouche were two outstanding exponents of their instrument, the great Italian tromba marinist Antonio Piccolobarista and Hans Schwalfener, the eminent Halle gamba player. The barouche set off at 9 am, accompanied by a large contingent of wheeled vehicles of every shape and size. Those closest to the barouche could hear occasional strangulated sounds emanating from it, as Piccolobarista and Schwalfener struggled with the complexity of their parts. What happened next is confused and unclear, but after the ninth movement (a Capriccio larghetto canzone a 24 con 3.5 variazione) it seems the barouche, by now travelling at a pretty decent speed, hit a substantial rock in the road. The two performers, who had been sitting opposite one another and because of their exertions were not able to wear seat belts, were hurtled into towards each other. The unfortunate Schwalfener became entangled around the neck by the string of Piccolobarista’s tromba marina and was garrotted, expiring, so it is said, with a curious hissing sound that bore rather more than a passing resemblance to the word ‘Scheisse’. The aftermath of this unfortunate incident is pitiful to recount. Poor Piccolobarista was so distraught that he never played the tromba marina again, undoubtedly hastening the instrument’s demise, while on impact the scores of both performers were hurtled out of the barouche, only to be recovered by a boy with a metal detector from a drainpipe in a field near Schönebeck nearly 300 years later. And what, you may ask, became of the author of this tragedy, Agris Culturovics. Well, you’ll just have to ask, since neither I nor anyone else has the slightest idea.


The rediscovery of the concerto has raised the possibility of a performance, which of course would be a premiere for the complete work, if played in full. However Dr Claire Berget, a world authority on barouche-based musical works, believes it may be impossible to re-create the right conditions for an authentic performance. ‘It may’, she said, ‘be necessary to mount a concert performance, with the barouche being driven round and round a very large stage for long enough for all 73 movements to be played’. The other major problem will of course be to find two musicians stupid enough to agree to perform the piece in the first place.


Dedicated to Claire Berget, without whose inspiration I could never have come up with such a crazy piece

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