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A few facts

Liquor & Lust

The community I call home straddles a state line, two legal jurisdictions with decidedly different views on most topics. Like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, they’ve. existed back-to-back rather than side-by-side. Those differences were especially so while one had achieved statehood and the other was yet a territory. The semantic differences between a state and the frontier, between civilization and savagery were only more exaggerated at the border. At the time of statehood, the younger region was admitted as dry and the two breweries it had enjoyed were forced across the river to the older community. Meanwhile the recently dry area developed a tolerance for another sort of indulgence: prostitution.

This new symbiosis was fruitful for both sides. On my side of the river, the city ignored the several houses of ill repute operating on lowland beside the river [while as many as fifty saloons occupied a slight ridge opposite; they got the better part of the trade]. Once monthly the constabulary “raided” these establishments, took someone into custody, assessed a healthy fine, and used that money for the benefit of the local schools — a sin tax.

Agincourt isn’t so nicely separated but there is some distinction between neighborhoods which might have worked in a similar way. There was, of course “Mrs. Miller’s Enterprise” opposite the new Auditorium, which gave its name to the service lane beside it: Easy Alley. One of its consequences, logically, would have been unplanned pregnancies. And that, in its turn, led to a conspiracy of some interest.

Then, during prohibition, Chicago liquor operations had extended far beyond that metropolis and even beyond Illinois into adjacent states. It’s just as likely that booze must have had its own distribution system in place for the duration. So, while these two illicit activities may not have been contemporary, they add a layer of counterculture to the Agincourt Story.



The 1895-1896 inaugural season of The Auditorium, Agincourt’s opera house, was a high point in community history. It represented not only the city’s aspiration to match cultural accomplishments of other nearby cities — Des Moines, Sioux City and Omaha — but also to represent the full range of local talent. Trying to reconstruct that season involves an exploration of theatre, music and other forms of entertainment that are less common now. I met someone at coffee this afternoon, an NDSU art graduate, who’s expressed interest in creating some of the graphics that would have advertised each performance and enticed an audience through the doors and into their seats.

Looking at what passed for “high culture” in the 1890s has been fun. A handful of potential players in the game were familiar by name and reputation, if not detail. Here are some putative events:

  • One of the more famous violinists of that era was Edouard (Ede) Reményi, a Jewish Hungarian by birth and friend of Johannes Brahms. He spent much of his late career in the U.S. and died at a San Francisco concert in 1898. Several sources give his birth name as Hoffman, but on the stage he was known only as Reményi. A 1906 posthumous biography provides some fodder for the possibility of an Iowa visit: “In the Autumn of that year [1878]. he made his second visit to the United States, giving his first concert at Steinway Hall, New York. During the next few weeks he played in the New York Philharmonic concerts; in the Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts under Theodore Thomas’s baton; in the Carlberg symphony concerts, in Boston, Hartford, and, in the latter part of December, in Washington, where he was the guest of President Hayes at the White House. The following year he continued his American tour, playing in New York, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Quincy, Illinois, Burlington, Iowa, and other cities. In 1880 he went as far west as Colorado and greatly enjoyed himself in the mining camps, where he made himself a favorite with the miners by his impromptu performances.” There were also long periods when his whereabouts were unknown — but hinted at cities around the globe.
  • Recitals of rhetoric and erudition were common entertainments, growing from the Chautauqua circuits. But these “displays” are more difficult to pin down than musical performances.
  • Aside from theatrical performance by local companies and traveling troupes, I had a brain fart a few days ago about an opera that might have been staged. And as I thought about it, the standard repertoire seemed too easy. Like Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church, dedicated to an imaginary saint, why not invent an opera, the titular subject of this entry.

Its title “Philidor” popped into my head, and the chain reaction began:

  1. Philidor is a character only mentioned in the 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death,” which was released in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven.” [I didn’t realize it was a propaganda piece.] It’s the story of a British pilot in WWII who was supposed to die during a flight over the Channel but was missed by Death’s collector, Conductor 71, in a dense fog. The film revolves about the pilot (David Niven*) and his legal battle to remain among the living. Conductor 71 (played with delicious French foppishness, by Marius Goring, a character actor you might remember from “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) tempts Niven taht a match with Philidor, the 18th century French chess grand master, might be possible. But I prefer to think he was Philidor, a name that I love.
  2. It turns out that, besides his prowess at chess, Philidor was also a composer of light opera! More than thirty of them, in fact, none of which are performed today. But that fact played nicely into the developing narrative.
  3. This should be an opera about Philidor, not by him. So who would have written such a work? Claude Monet and Wikipedia came to my aid. His surname will be Argentuille, which comes from an obscure painting by Monet, and his given name Didier derives from an ancient Roman, Didius, a.k.a. Desiderius, which can be translated as “ardent desire” or “the longed-for” (both of which suit my current melancholy). So Didier d’Argentuille he will be and require a backstory, too, which can occupy me for weeks.
  4. The story of Philidor as composer will be a tough sell. But as a chess grand master, there is a nugget too good to pass by: the Café de la Régence in Paris was the 18th century hangout for chess aficionados and it was there that François-André Danican Philidor played chess with none other than Benjamin Franklin, with whom I share a birthday! Talk about manna from heaven. So, in the spirit of Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a Parisian bar in Montmartre will be the setting for this most unlikely of encounters, Argentuille’s comic opera “Philidor”, dramatized with the philosophical asides of Ben Franklin and François-André Philidor during a chess game on a summer afternoon in 1740.

That’s the way things work here in Agincourt. All of it contrived create a placard announcing its performance on an October weekend in northwestern Iowa during 1895.

* The film is populated by many famous character actors of mid-century. Besides Niven, there were Kim Hunter, Michael Trubshawe, Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring, and Raymond Massey — all names that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty. 

[#894] [revised: 28.12.2022]

Lloyd and Boyd


boustrophedon /ˌbstrəˈfdən/:  a style of writing in which alternate lines of text are reversed, with letters also written in reverse, mirror-style.

A handful of orthographies can do this quite handily. Chinese or Japanese, for example, can be written top-to-bottom or left-to-right and possibly even right-to-left. The ancient Greeks, however, are the folks who gave this system its name: its meaning is “as the ox ploughs”. Which came to mind when I saw this photograph to two yoked oxen doing what oxen do: beasts of burden. I’ve named them Lloyd and Boyd and we’ll fit them into the story somewhere and make certain that their golden years were filled with leasurely grazing in fields of tender grass.


Nothing lasts forever.

I’ve been mortal since the day I was born, exceptionally so. But an extended form of that noun — mortality, the state of being subject to death — has affected me like driving toward the Rockies: they’re there and seem fixed on the horizon like a cheap movie set, then, suddenly, you’re in them. No transition. No warning. No “tah-dah!” Suddenly you’re there, feeling every moment of your mortality.

Nothing lasts forever. Not me and certainly not this blog. We are all born to die. Yet if anything outlasts me, I’d like it to be Agincourt or the idea it represents. If anything gets even close to the state of immortality, it’s an idea and I’m very lucky to have had one.



“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”. ― Victor Hugo

Of our five senses, smell is said to be the most acute, the most reliable. I once challenged students involved with Agincourt to map the landscape of their youth, not by sight, the physical landmarks that define our personal world, but by the sense of smell. And it works in the conjunction of space-time: There is a commercial bakery on my route from campus to home and I think that smell of freshly baking bread is linked automatically with the turn signal and my usual left turn onto Fourth avenue; it tells me where I am and what to do.

Smell can also transcend time. The smell of egg salad transports me instantly to my grandmother’s kitchen where I’m standing before the open refrigerator and being lectured to know what I want before opening it. Likewise, the changing styles of music and my shifting taste could be a chronology of my life. Given a bit of time, we could write the history of Agincourt in its music. Indeed, it already has been through scattered musical references: Gerry Leiden rehearsing the “Lessons & Carols” at St Joe’s church on election eve 2015 and the premier of his oratorio “Shanawdithit” soon after; a punk band playing at the Yellow Brick Roadhouse; the 1895-1895 opening season at The Auditorium. Each of these could be someone’s reference point in space-time.

“Music is a total constant. That’s why we have such a strong visceral connection to it, you know? Because a song can take you back instantly to a moment, or a place, or even a person. No matter what else has changed in you or the world, that one song stays the same, just like that moment.”
― Sarah Dessen, Just Listen

In 1963 our Senior Class met to consider a memorial gift to the school. I can’t recall what it was; maybe something like a score board for the swimming pool, though that sounds way beyond our means. But at some point during the meeting, I offered a suggestion: Why not (I suggested naively) commission a living American composer — names like Vincent Persichetti or William Schuman came to mind — to write a graduation march, something to bear our school’s name into the future and, perhaps, beyond the confines of District #217.

“But ‘Pomp & Circumstance’ is traditional,” they protested. Reminding them that “Pomp & Circumstance” — actually the first of a group of five marches written by Sir Edward Elgar in 1904; I looked it up — had itself been an innovation got me nowhere. My eccentricities had already put me at the fringe of teenage culture and this just confirmed their suspicions. But that idea, to commission a musical composition lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t go away. So as we prepared for the first of what would be three Agincourt exhibits, the exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 1857 — its “sesquicentennial”; I love saying that word — it was clear the time had come: we would commission a Sesquicentennial Fanfare for brass as part of the opening ceremonies.

Who to approach with the commission? Several composers came to mind but the list quickly focused on Daron Hagen, familiar because he had written an opera based on the early life of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hagen was also a Midwesterner, born in Milwaukee and rooted in the same soil as Wright and Sullivan. And, so, I crafted an email message, explained that I represented “the Sesquicentennial Committee of Agincourt, Iowa, a town of 27,500 people” and we wished to commission a fanfare to inaugurate the city’s 150th birthday celebrations. And, oh, by the way, Agincourt is a work of fiction, an academic exercise in the relationship between design and narrative, place-making and story-telling, to which I expected one of three reactions: 1) the delete button; 2) a recommendation to seek serious therapy — I was already getting that and Agincourt had become a large part of it — or, 3) a qualified “yes”. His actual reply was more than we could hope for: “I’m there,” he wrote. It’s reassuring when an idea resonates with others.

Maestro Hagen asked what we had in mind and I suggested “Musik for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Krumhorns”, though William Byrd was several generations too late for the actual Battle of Agincourt. But it set a tone and allowed Hagen to revisit a 1989 composition unknown to me, “Sennets, Cortege & Tuckets”. Two months later came the PDF of “Agincourt Fanfare,” scored for four trumpets, four french horns, three trombones, baritone and tympani. The brass section of our local symphony did justice to a complex work and those in attendance that Thursday evening had just witnessed a world premier. That itch had finally been scratched.

“We Few”

Eight years and several semesters later, there was enough new material to suggest a second exhibit to our friend and museum director James O’Rourke. The six hundredth anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt would pass largely unnoticed here in the United States on October 25th, 2015, which was hard to ignore — everywherre except a small town in Iowa. Once again there was an opportunity for music to reinforce the exhibit. We approached Daron Hagen a second time — he had already been recognized as Agincourt, Iowa’s official “Composer-not-in-Residence” — with the suggestion to set a Shakespeare text for baritone voice and piano; I had in mind Henry’s speech to his troops on the eve of battle, fifty powerful lines that have been delivered by the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh and during innumerable speech tournaments and theater auditions. So this time, the exhibit closed on October 25th, the 600th anniversary to the day (allowing for calendar shifts from O.S. to N.S.) of the battle, the definitive battle, of the Hundred Years’ War, off-stage centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V, with “We Few”, another surprise world premier.

“Dear Ronald, I wanted to let you know that I finished a second set of revisions to the Henry scene written in memory of your father. TWELVE years after first finishing the piece! But I have learned a lot since then and the piece is now very much the “big moment” in the Henry opera that I shall never have written, and well worth having stewed over for so long. I am grateful for the commission long ago, and for the chance to have a go at that text. Importantly, what motivated me to go back in is that I signed my catalogue over to Peermusic Classical, which is a highly honorable global independent that will keep the music in print for a couple of generations, at least. Relieved.” — Daron Hagen


Protected: Not just a battle anymore

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Anyone involved in building will tell you that, where there’s water, it will find a way. I took a few minutes today to consider the presence of both waterways that bound the south and west sides of the Original Townsite: the Muskrat River and Crispin Creek. They converge just south of the old mill and its former mill pond. With little experience in geology, I’m guessing that these will look very much like other streams in Iowa, Illinois, or Indiana. So eBay has provided images that I believe can be adapted to the Agincourt context.

Numbers 1 and 3, could be quiet stretches of the Muskrat, especially upstream toward the “lake country”. Number 2, with its prominent erosion could be east of town near the source of Crispin creek. And number 4, I imagine as a gulley that handles runoff in heavy rains but is dry most of the time. A little photoshopping will edit out the captions. And some time looking at the larger context may find ideal locations for each of these views.

Makes me wish I’d had geology as an undergraduate.

Hetty Pegler’s Fish & Chips

At roughly 1,138.8 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, you’d imagine that decent fish & chips would be a fruitless quest hereabouts. And you’d have been right until six years ago when Esme and Hamish Gibbs came to town and opened their public house in the old opera house.

“Hetty Pegler’s Public House” (that’s where the word “pub” comes from, an abbreviated form of “public house”) is named for one of Esme Gibbs’ 17th century ancestors in Gloucestershire, Hester Pegler. Ms Pegler had no connection with either fish or chips (as far as we know), but she did own the land where an ancient burial mound (a tump), an archaeological site, can still be visited, a few miles from the village of Uley.

Coïncidentally, early Fargo architect George Hancock was born about five miles from the tump.


Illusion vs Allusion

Woodcut illustration by Valenti Angelo for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Scarlet Letter

Book illustration is an art, a special creative act. For, scattered throughout pages of text are shards of context, strategic two-dimensional representations of material culture essential to the story, set pieces, reminders of what we already knew rather than distractions. They are a preview of what is to come.

Those same images can be jarring, I suppose, unexpected, like the twists of language that can tweak the reader with an unusual word choice or grammatical construction. But instances of that sort cannot be a regular thing, least of all rhythmic, expected like the next drumbeat.

In some cases they may set the stage for what is about to take place. In a way, they are that place. Icons. [Or are they avatars?] But what they ought not do is f**k with our sense of the characters themselves. If you intend to cast the play, design the set, lease the venue for the day, fine. But the book’s characters are mine ti imagine.

It’s too cartoonish an example, but the film based on Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cast Alan Rickman’s voice as Marvin, the paranoid android. Rickman’s sardonic sneer was perfect. He was Snape before Harry Potter. But Marvin’s physical form more than a disappointment; it was all wrong. I don’t know what I’d expected to see on the screen but it wasn’t a pingpong ball with legs.

The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby

A 1928 edition of The Scarlet Letter was my introduction to the art of Valenti Angelo — though subsequent encounters haven’t maintained that quality, for me, at least. I appreciated their woodcut-y-ness, which is apparently the way they were created and presumably printed, in letterpress by the Grabhorn brothers, predecessors of the Arion Press. Angelo’s three- and four-color compositions have a “period” quality appropriate for the temporal setting of the story. And the leave to the reader’s imagination how the characters appear, for they will in each reader’s mind.

One of fifty pen-and-ink illustrations by Michael Graves for the Great Gatsby

Then, fifty-six years later, Arion Press reprised the success of the Grabhorn Scarlet with its commissioned illustrations by architect Michael Graves for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Here, the illustrations are peppered throughout the text, while in Hawthorne they serves as chapter headings. But in both cases, we never see a human form, in fact, no animate representation whatsoever.— no dog, no songbird, except for a roasted chicken dinner, in Gatsby; I have to review the Hawthorne to make sure. But Gatsby’s Long Island estate is as proper as Malfoi Manor was in Harry Potter. The choice of Graves, the architect, was especially correct.

I suppose the character of a character can change, evolve, contradict itself, while the details of setting remain our link to the author’s intent. And I hope for a similar relationship in Agincourt. So far, so good.