The first published Black composer is finally getting his due

The first published Black composer is finally getting his due

Those with a passable knowledge of classical music composition might be excused for assuming that this genre was almost exclusively the province white men (with a smaller subset of often overlooked white women). But in the late 18th century, for example, fans of no less stature than former U.S. President John Adams were describing the orchestral leader Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prolific composer of concertos and string quartets, as “the most accomplished man in Europe.” Bologne, the son of an African girl enslaved and impregnated by a wealthy plantation owner, and later known as the “Black Mozart,” was so talented that his erstwhile namesake and contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was rumored to have modeled the sinister role of Monostatos in The Magic Flute after Bologne, as a way of salving an acute sense of jealousy he felt toward Bologne’s abilities.

But when we start to travel back in time from the era of Mozart, the trail of known, published Black classical composers begins to evaporate. While Black composers in Europe are described during the Middle Ages, no published works by them have been discovered. This gap in published Black classical composition had included the entirety of the European Renaissance, until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted two cloistered musicologists to conduct some internet research, when they discovered a man who had been all but lost to history: the Black, Renaissance-era composer Vicente Lusitano.

As described by Holly Williams in an article written for BBC, Lusitano’s work, although highly regarded, had been largely forgotten for centuries by all but a rather tiny set of Portuguese musicologists. His existence was historically documented but his published work—in choral ensembles, specifically motets, polyphonic choral pieces involving the overlay of multiple separate melodies, and etudes (instructional compositions)—was not widely copied or performed to the same extent as many of his contemporaries either during his lifetime or afterward. His talent, however, which many researchers are only now rediscovering, was expert and undeniable.

There are no known sketches or other depictions of Lusitano, but some things about his life are known. As Williams notes, he is described in a 17th century text as “pardo,” a colloquial Portuguese term of that time meaning mixed race. Born around 1520, his father was likely Portuguese and his mother was African, possibly a slave or a descendant of one (Portugal outlawed slavery in 1761) of indeterminate descent. He became a “Catholic priest, composer and musical theorist” and traveled to Rome—then the hub of Western musical culture—in 1551. His work enjoyed success initially, but, as Williams details, upon his arrival in Rome he had the misfortune of becoming enmeshed in the treacherous world of musical politics:

Then, Lusitano became embroiled in a high-profile public debate around the rules of composition and the use and juxtapositions of different tuning systems or keys, with a rival composer, Nicola Vicentino. Consider it a Twitter spat of the Renaissance age – although with an official judging panel of eminent performers from the Sistine Chapel choir, no less.

In the final adjudication of their intellectual duel, Lusitano was unanimously judged the winner: an unlikely victory given that, as a foreign outsider, he was something of an underdog compared to the well-connected Vicentino.

Vicentino (who ended up having to pay a fine, apparently for taking the issue to such lengths that a Vatican tribunal had to be convened) did not take his defeat well, conducting what Williams describes as a “smear campaign” for years thereafter against Lusitano and deliberately distorting the outcome of their debate in a text that was later accepted by credulous musical historians of that era. In essence, Vicentino tried to have Lusitano written out of the history books, and to a great extent he succeeded. There is also a 17th-century source indicating that Lusitano’s name was scratched off the cover of his own published counterpoint treatise, and also indications that Vicentino may have plagiarized Lusitano’s chromatic techniques.

Williams makes a credible case that Lusitano’s mixed race status would have presented some impediments to his career advancement (though she provides no specific evidence suggesting any racial animus prompted his treatment by Vicentino, others are less charitable in that assessment). Papal edicts which allowed ordained priests of African heritage specifically forbade them from holding benefices, or permanent church appointments, in Portuguese churches. This may or may not have prompted or motivated Lusitano’s relocation to Rome from Portugal. There is also the existence of a rare secular composition by Lusitano called Quid Montes, Musae? which specifically calls upon the muses to relocate to Italy, along with the Portuguese ambassador, who is assumed to have been Lusitano’s patron.

But that composition may also be seen as a bitter ode to his home country. As explained by composer Joseph McHardy, one of Lusitano’s more recent proponents:

“It talks about Portugal in some derogatory language: ravening beasts and inhospitable rocks, everything is scary and everything promises death…” explains McHardy. “On the surface, you go ‘OK, this is a Renaissance person writing neo-classical stuff’. But if you put it in context – that this comes from the pen, and may well have been sung in the mouth, of someone who was discriminated against [via] Portuguese legal and societal racism – I think it has some more layers to it. It feels like his personal voice.”

Adding to the debate is the fact that although Lusitano was initially described as pardo in unpublished 17th century texts, the musical historian responsible for the first printed encyclopedia  documenting Portuguese composers apparently saw fit to omit that fact, essentially obfuscating Lusitano’s racial heritage for the next 200 years. Williams cites music scholar Garrett Schumann of the University of Michigan, who suggests this may have been an intentional omission: “At the time Portugal was being extremely legalistic about racial categories because they were trying to exclude people of African descent from property rights, so it may have been a political motivation. But it is [also] part of a broader scheme of making it seem like the only people who participated in this tradition were white men.” Schumann also notes that he continues to encounter resistance about Lusitano’s now well-documented racial origins from other academics who have always assumed that all published composers from this time frame were white.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Rory McCleery, the founder of British choral ensemble The Marian Consort, discovered an article written by Schumann for VAN magazine describing Lusitano’s work. This prompted an online search for Lusitano’s music. He found a collection of motets that had been digitized and put online, including this one, Inviolata, performed here by the consort, and directed by McCleery:

Joseph McHardy also first encountered Lusitano during the early COVID-19 lockdowns, but through an even more unusual avenue: the Black Lives Matter protests. As Williams explains:

During Black Lives Matter protests, McHardy saw a picture on Twitter of someone holding a placard depicting black composers through history, reading ‘teach these composers’ – including Lusitano, who he’d never heard of. McHardy googled him, also found Schumann’s article, and got in touch.

Since then McHardy and Schumann have been involved in transcribing the various individual part segments of Lusitano’s motets into a unified, modernized score suitable for choral performance. As Williams notes, both McLeery and McHardy “are also staunch in insisting that this revival of interest is not just about the eye-catching fact that Lusitano was a composer of African descent—it’s that his music stands up.”

For his part, Schumann, whose concern about classical music’s “selective memory” of its own history helped to spark this resurgence of interest in Lusitano, hopes that people and institutions pay more attention to such “forgotten” composers. As he observes:

Lusitano’s story shows how composers’ achievements—particularly those with underrepresented identities—can fall through the cracks of classical music’s history-making mechanisms. His silenced legacy puts into relief the gulf that separates the richness of its past from the purported “truth” its institutions portray as history through their performances and scholarship.

The Marian Consort’s performance of Inviolata in November 2020 is believed to be the first live performance of Lusitano’s work in the United Kingdom. They will release a full album of his music this fall.

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