The great black composer of the 16th century erased from history

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Relatively little is known about Lusitano’s life – a fact that certainly didn’t help his historical legacy – although what we do know is littered with juicy and intriguing details. “There are many things that could be said about his cool side as a person and about his exceptional character”, promises the composer, conductor and specialist in early music Joseph McHardy, recent Lusitanian champion.

What we do know is that Lusitano became a Catholic priest, composer and music theorist, and in 1551 left Portugal for Rome – a multicultural musical capital of Europe at the time – most likely following of a wealthy patron, the Portuguese ambassador. Lusitano seems to have done very well there, publishing a collection of motets: sacred polyphonic choral compositions (where the voices simultaneously sing several layers of independent melodies). Then, Lusitano found himself embroiled in a highly publicized public debate around the rules of composition and the use and juxtapositions of different tuning systems or keys, with a rival composer, Nicola Vicentino. Think of it as a Renaissance-era Twitter spat — albeit with an official jury of prominent performers from the Sistine Chapel choir, no less.

In the final judging of their intellectual duel, Lusitano was unanimously deemed the winner: an unlikely victory given that, as an outsider, he was somewhat of an underdog compared to the well-connected Vicentino. But, unwilling to give up, Vicentino waged a smear campaign against Lusitano, discrediting him and his ideas. In what was to become a famous printed treatise from 1555, Vicentino fabricated a misleading version of the debate so that it sounded like he had the best ideas, really – and it was this document that endured and this version that was later repeated in many textbooks.

Some time after 1553, Lusitano converted to Protestantism – itself an unheard of development for an Iberian composer at the time. He also marries and moves to Germany; we know that he received payment for music there in 1562 and that he applied for a job in Stuttgart.

But although his achievements in Rome suggest that Lusitano gained significant respect for his music during his lifetime, it was not as widely copied or performed as some of his contemporaries, and does not seem to have caught on throughout the world. ; this led some musicologists in Portugal to appreciate it, but a failure to break through among non-Portuguese scholars since. The occasional flash of academic interest never turned into sustained attention, an accessible and easily shareable modern score, or performances of the thing that really matters: his music.

The new Lusitanian champions

Until very recently. During the pandemic, two Renaissance music lovers have discovered Lusitano separately, are hosting concerts and releasing recordings of his work, while a new piece reimagining a Lusitano composition is currently on tour across the UK.

In what he describes as the “darkest days” of the first lockdown, Rory McCleery – founder of British vocal ensemble The Marian Consort – read an article about Lusitano by an academic, Garrett Schumann of the University of Michigan , in VAN Magazine. Keen to find out more, McCleery was delighted to discover that Liber primus epigramatum, Lusitano’s collection of motets from 1551 had been digitized and put online.

“My penchant has always been to find Renaissance composers who fell through the cracks,” he says. It’s always super exciting when you find a composer and you start looking at their music and, in fact, it’s very good. You want to evangelize about it – the music is there to be shared.”

And share it, he did: The Marian Consort included a Lusitanian piece, Inviolata, integra et casta es, in concert programs by December 2020 – likely the first time it was performed live in the UK. Last summer they wove it into a ball celebrating a much more famous Renaissance composer, Josquin des Prez. It was appropriate, given that Lusitano’s work is clearly in dialogue with Josquin – in InviolateLusitano riffed on a technically accomplished five-part composition by Josquin, expanding it impressively, for eight voices.

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