The music theorist and composer Vicente Lusitano (1561)

Vicente Lusitano was a sixteenth-century composer and musical theorist perhaps most famous for winning a public debate with Nicola Vicentino and for his important book on theory entitled Introdutione facilissima et novissima de canto ferma (1553). Although he has long been a well-known figure among musicologists, the fact that he was black has been almost entirely erased from memory. Described in contemporary sources as a “pardo” (Portuguese for mulatto), he was likely born to a white father and a black mother in Portugal around 1522. An ordained Catholic priest, he traveled to Italy, perhaps in the entourage of Portugal’s ambassador to Rome. There he made his name as a highly sought-after music teacher, although his challenging compositions and lack of a powerful patron made it difficult for him to advance his career. Somewhere around 1556, Lusitano converted to Protestantism and married before seeking refuge in 1561 at the court of the Protestant Duke Christoph of Württemberg and disappearing from the historical record.

Lusitano represents one of the spheres within which black Europeans often found success–music. The fact that he was forced into the service of a provincial court and then was lost to the historical record points to the importance of patronage and politics for setting one’s life chances in Renaissance and early modern Europe. The piece below is Heu Me domine, published as an appendix to his 1553 Introdutione, performed by Paul van Nevel’s Huelgas Ensemble.

Jeff Bowersox


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