A Black composer's legacy flourishes 500 years after his birth

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A Black composer's legacy flourishes 500 years after his birth
In an undated image provided by Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the front page of the Soprano part book for Vicente Lusitano’s motet collection “Liber Primus Epigramatum.” The reputation of Vicente Lusitano, one of the earliest known composers of African descent active in Europe, was thwarted for centuries. (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek via The New York Times)

by Garrett Schumann

NEW YORK, NY.- On a day in June 2020, Alice Jones was in her New York City apartment getting ready to attend a Black Lives Matter rally. Jones, a flutist and composer who serves as an assistant dean and faculty member at the Juilliard School, was adamant about expressing herself as a Black classical musician.

“I felt like it was my obligation to make sure in this moment, when we’re talking about Black lives mattering, that we also talk about Black art and music,” she said.

So Jones designed a sign that listed Black composers throughout history. After adding Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the 18th-century subject of the upcoming film “Chevalier,” she faintly remembered another, older name: Vicente Lusitano.

Lusitano was an African Portuguese composer and music theorist who was most likely born between 1520 and 1522 and who died sometime after 1562. Probably the child of an enslaved African woman and a Portuguese noble, Lusitano traversed Europe in a career that saw him depart the Iberian Peninsula for Rome as a Catholic priest in 1550 and, around a decade later, relocate from Italy to Germany as a married Protestant.

He wrote sacred and secular vocal music, taught extensively and produced scholarship that includes a unique manuscript treatise on improvised vocal counterpoint. But until recently, Lusitano has been mostly overlooked by music histories. He has been omitted altogether in some instances, and his appearances in centuries of academic literature have consistently minimized his biography.

Philippe Canguilhem, a musicology professor at the University of Tours in France, said, “I have always been shocked by the paradox between the quality of Lusitano’s accomplishments and how little we know about his life.”

The process that diminished Lusitano’s reputation followed a kind of circular logic: Generations of historians and performers inherited sources that did not discuss his music and writings in depth, so those practitioners repeatedly presumed Lusitano’s achievements must lack artistic and academic significance. No standard practices of revision existed to reassess this understanding of Lusitano’s life and music, and he became trapped in the margins of classical music’s history.

It took until the late 19th century for new scholarship to revisit Lusitano’s printed works, beginning a 150-year-old reclamation project. Important strides were made in the 1960s and ’70s as new sources emerged — most notably, a 17th-century manuscript that describes Lusitano as “homem pardo,” a historical Portuguese term for certain mixed-race people of African descent. And since 2000, the internet has become increasingly important to Lusitano scholarship; the summer of 2020 saw the onset of a new and ongoing flurry of interest whose roots are entirely digital.

Jones’ demonstration sign played a part in the current wave of activity: A picture of her placard went viral on social media and broadcast Lusitano’s name to a new audience. Joseph McHardy, a Scottish Congolese conductor and early music specialist based in London, was stunned when he saw Jones’ post.

“Learning about Lusitano reminded me of the feeling I got when I learned there were Black people in the Roman Empire,” McHardy recalled.

After seeing the sign, he quickly searched for scores of Lusitano’s music to perform with his church choir but could only find scans of the 16th-century originals. So he spent that summer making his own updated versions.

He’s one of many experts and enthusiasts who produced the first modern editions of Lusitano’s compositions and shared them on free online databases. The result was a burst of new performances in the months that followed. Nearly five centuries after Lusitano’s death, dozens of choirs in the United States, Canada and Europe performed his music for the first time, largely because his scores were finally accessible.

Britain has been the epicenter of Lusitano’s current musical resurgence. In June, McHardy partnered with the Chineke! Foundation to produce a tour highlighting Lusitano’s sacred works with an ensemble composed entirely of vocalists of color. The motets’ beauty astonished McHardy, who said, “We had no idea Lusitano’s pieces would be so enjoyable to sing.”

His collaborators, too, were impressed.

“I have fallen in love with Lusitano’s music,” said Malcolm J. Merriweather, an American baritone and conductor who performed on the tour.

The Marian Consort, another British choir, led by conductor Rory McCleery, preceded McHardy’s tour with a 2021 concert series featuring one of Lusitano’s works, which it also performed at that year’s BBC Proms. In the last two years, McCleery’s ensemble released the albums “Josquin, Lusitano & Williams: Inviolata” and “Vicente Lusitano: Motets” on the Linn Records label; these are the first commercial recordings to feature selections from Lusitano’s 1551 volume “Liber Primus Epigramatum.”

Lusitano’s legacy has always been subject to information technology, whether in today’s digital world or that of the 16th-century printing press. This is particularly evident in the history of Lusitano’s 1551 dispute with his Italian contemporary Nicola Vicentino.

That summer, the two faced off in a formalized set of arguments debating analytical definitions of chromaticism. Ultimately, a panel of three senior Vatican musicians declared Lusitano victorious, but Vicentino quickly began to stoke skepticism and work to invalidate the judges’ decision.

Vicentino used an influential 1555 treatise to publish distorted and fabricated accounts of the dispute; it harmed Lusitano’s reputation by portraying him as equivocating and old-fashioned. That Vicentino’s perspective was printed and countervailing evidence was not played a key role in advancing his constructed narrative. Italian academics working later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, then preferred Vicentino’s point of view and amplified it, despite their awareness of contradictory sources.

Giordano Mastrocola, an associate researcher at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, has also identified important political contexts that magnified Vicentino’s influence.

“Lusitano was an outsider,” Mastrocola said, “and it is so clear that Vicentino had some important relationships in the higher spheres of Italian society at that time.”

Whatever the motivation for scholars to favor Vicentino, Lusitano suffered as a result. Later generations of historians simply accepted easily available information about the dispute without examining its veracity; Vicentino’s story transformed into established fact.

Lusitano was a skilled, accomplished musician, not a pariah. Mastrocola noted that Lusitano’s religious conversion indicates that he had access to certain powerful, though heretical, social circles. Yet the episode with Vicentino demonstrates that Lusitano’s merits could not overcome factors like the incuriosity of future scholars.

Today, Lusitano is not easy to study, even if you can find performances of his music on YouTube. Little correspondence and few records of his life are known to have survived, both because earlier scholars had no interest and because his sociopolitical disenfranchisement constrained the production of such documents. Contextual evidence is critical, especially with respect to his identity.

We know other pardo people existed in 16th-century Portugal. At the time, thousands of African and African-descended people, most of whom were enslaved, lived in the country, including in Lusitano’s birth city, Olivença. Furthermore, the details of Lusitano’s peripatetic career align with a 1518 papal bull prohibiting Black priests’ employment within the Catholic Church.

Particularly in its recursive moments of erasure, Lusitano’s experience as a historical figure illustrates the kind of collective activity that has traditionally excluded composers of African descent from classical music’s conventional performance and academic institutions. Melanie Zeck, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center and former reference librarian at the Center for Black Music Research, emphasized that the first historians of Black classical music responded to these exclusionary tendencies by developing what she called a “totally separate practice from mainstream academic scholarship.”

“People would come together — musicians, businesspeople, teachers — in search of historical truth,” Zeck said. That is the same reason Jones made her protest sign two years ago.

Now the internet and social media can empower these principles of Black music scholarship — though, as Zeck said, “misinformation abounds.” But for Lusitano, these technologies nevertheless have helped the truths of his life and music become more accessible than ever, 500 years after his birth.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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