One day in June 2020, Alice Jones was preparing to attend a Black Lives Matter rally at her Brooklyn apartment. A flutist and composer who served as vice dean and lecturer at the Juilliard School, Dr. Jones was determined to express himself as a Black classical musician.
“At this moment, when we talk about the importance of Black lives, I felt it was my obligation to make sure we were also talking about Black art and music,” he said.
Jones designed a sign that lists Black composers throughout history. After adding Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Boulogne, the 18th century subject of the upcoming movie “Chevalier,” vaguely remembered another old name: Vicente Lusitano.
Lusitano was an African-Portuguese composer and music theorist, most likely born between 1520 and 1522 and died after 1562. In 1550 he moved to Rome for the Iberian Peninsula as a Catholic priest and about ten years later as a married Protestant from Italy to Germany.
He wrote sacred and secular vocal music, taught extensively, and produced a unique manuscript review scholarship on improvised vocal counterpoint. But until recently, Lusitano was mostly overlooked in music histories. In some cases it has been completely overlooked, and its centuries-old appearance in academic literature has consistently minimized its biography.
“The paradox between the quality of Lusitano’s achievements and how little we know about his life has always shocked me,” said Philippe Canguilhem, professor of musicology at the University of Tours in France.
The process that discredited Lusitano followed a kind of circular logic: Generations of historians and artists have inherited sources that do not discuss his music and writings in depth, so these practitioners have repeatedly assumed that Lusitano’s achievements had no artistic or academic significance. There was no standard revision practice to reassess this understanding of Lusitano’s life and music, and he was confined to the confines of classical music history.
It took until the late 19th century for new scientists to revisit the printed works of Lusitano, who started a 150-year breeding project. Significant strides were made in the 1960s and 70s as new sources emerged, most notably a 17th-century manuscript describing the Lusitano as “homem pardo”, a historical Portuguese term for certain mixed-race people of African descent. And since 2000, the internet has become more and more important to the Lusitano scholarship; The summer of 2020 witnessed the beginning of a new and ongoing wave of interest that has its roots in all digital.
Dr. Jones’ demonstration sign has played a role in the current wave of activity: A picture of his banner went viral on social media, posting Lusitano’s name to a new audience. Joseph McHardy, a Scottish-Congolese conductor and early music expert based in London, Dr. She was stunned to see Jones’ post and recalls: “Learning about Lusitano reminded me of the feeling I had when I learned that there were Blacks in the Roman Empire. ”
After seeing the sign, McHardy searched for scores of Lusitano’s music to perform with the church choir, but could only find scans of 16th-century originals. So he spent that summer making his own updated versions. He is one of many experts and enthusiasts who produced the first modern editions of Lusitano’s compositions and shared them in free online databases. The result was an explosion 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 notes were finally accessible.
England became the epicenter of Lusitano’s current musical resurgence. In June, McHardy partnered with Chineke! Foundation for a tour highlighting the sacred works of Lusitano with an ensemble of fully colored vocalists. The beauty of the motets stunned McHardy, who said, “We didn’t know it would be so fun to sing Lusitano’s pieces.”
His collaborators were also affected. “I fell in love with Lusitano’s music,” said Malcolm J. Merriweather, an American baritone and conductor who has performed on tour.
The Marian Consort, another British choir led by conductor Rory McCleery, started before McHardy’s tour with a 2021 concert series featuring one of Lusitano’s works, which they also performed at that year’s BBC Proms. McCleery’s band has released the albums “Josquin, Lusitano & Williams: Inviolata” and “Vicente Lusitano: Motets” on Linn Records in the last two years; these are the first commercial records containing selections from Lusitano’s 1551 book, Liber Primus Epigramatum.
Lusitano’s legacy has always been the subject of information technology, whether in today’s digital world or the 16th century printing press. This is particularly evident in the history of the 1551 dispute with Lusitano’s Italian contemporary, Nicola Vicentino.
That summer the two faced off in a series of formalized debates discussing analytical definitions of chromatism. Eventually, a panel of three top Vatican musicians declared Lusitano the winner, but Vicentino quickly began to fuel skepticism and work to overturn the judges’ decision.
Vicentino used an influential 1555 review to publish distorted and fabricated accounts of the dispute; He damaged his reputation by portraying Lusitano as ambivalent and old-fashioned. The fact that Vicentino’s point of view is in print and compensatory evidence does not play a key role in furthering the narrative he is building. Later, Italian scholars working in the 16th and 17th centuries favored Vicentino’s perspective and expanded on it, despite being aware of conflicting sources.
Giordano Mastrocola, assistant researcher at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, also identified key political contexts that fueled Vicentino’s influence. “Lusitano was a foreigner,” said Dr. Mastrocola said, “and it is so clear that Vicentino had some important relations with the higher echelons of Italian society at the time.” Whatever the academic reasons for choosing Vicentino, Lusitano suffered as a result. A later generation of historians simply accepted the readily available information about the debate without examining its accuracy: Vicentino’s story became an established fact.
Lusitano was a talented, successful musician, not a pariah. Dr. Mastrocola noted that Lusitano’s conversion showed that he had access to some powerful, albeit heretical, social circles. Yet the incident with Vicentino shows that Lusitano’s virtues were not able to overcome factors such as the lack of curiosity of future scholars.
Even if you find performances of his music on YouTube, studying Lusitano today is not easy. Very little correspondence and few records of his life are known to have survived, as both the lack of interest of previous scholars and his sociopolitical disenfranchisement restricted the production of such documents. Contextual evidence is critical, especially with regard to his identity.
We know that other pardo people existed in 16th century Portugal. At that time, thousands of Africans and people of African descent, many of whom were enslaved, lived in the country, including Lusitano’s birth city of Olivença. Also, details of Lusitano’s peripatetic career are in line with a 1518 papal proclamation outlawing the employment of Black priests in the Catholic Church.
Especially in moments of recurring erasure, Lusitano’s experience as a historical figure demonstrates the kind of collective activity that has traditionally excluded African-born composers from the traditional performance and academic institutions of classical music. Melanie Zeck, a reference librarian at the Center for American Public Life at the Library of Congress and a former reference librarian at the Center for Black Music Studies, stressed that early historians of Black classical music responded to these exclusionary tendencies by developing what she called “an entirely separate practice.” from mainstream academic scholarship.
“People, musicians, business people, teachers would come together in search of historical truth,” Zeck said. This is Dr. Same reason why Jones put up the protest sign two years ago.
Now, the internet and social media can reinforce these principles of Black music science, but Dr. As Zeck says, “there’s a lot of misinformation.” But for Lusitano, these technologies still helped make the realities of his life and music more accessible than ever, 500 years after his birth.
Garrett Schumann, Mich. He is a composer and academic who teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.