Music in Black and White

Luis Dias

There’s a ribald Konkani song (cantar) that keeps surfacing periodically on a local TV channel. Its object of ridicule is someone cross-dressed and in blackface. That it continues to air shows of how ‘okay’ we are as a society with both casual sexism and racism masquerading as humour.

Our colonial past has only deepened our subconscious bias in equating ‘fairness’ with beauty, virtue, intelligence and rectitude; and ‘darkness’ with the antithesis of all that.

That bias is not just confined to India. It is difficult even to see these pre-conceived notions in our thinking unless we really make an effort. It has ‘coloured’ the impression, for instance, of what is called ‘western’ classical music. Even when it is being criticized, it is called the music of ‘dead white men’.

A conventional study of the oeuvre of classical music consists largely of the compositions of these ‘dead white men’, giants though they may be. It is unfortunate that it takes seismic shifts in civil rights and social justice for assumptions even about classical music to be challenged. But that this is happening is a good thing.

A recent article in The Guardian brought to attention composer and music theorist of the late Renaissance: Vicente Lusitano (c.1520 – c.1561).

The surname ‘Lusitano’ means ‘Portuguese’ appears to be a nickname rather than a family name.

The writer of the article, a London-based conductor, Joseph McHardy learned about Lusitano in the unlikeliest of ways: from a picture of a protest placard in New York City. Flautist and composer Alice Jones had tweeted a photo of the placard she had carried to a #BlackLivesMatterRally in the summer of 2020 after the institutional murder of George Floyd. Her placard listed Black composers of classical music. Lusitano headed that list.

Very little is actually known about the milestones of Vicente Lusitano, not even exact dates or even years of his birth or death. We do know he was born in Olivença, then a Portuguese city, today Olivenza, a town in south-western Spain, near the Portuguese border.(Incidentally, it is also the birthplace of Paolo da Gama, Vasco da Gama’s elder brother, and commander of São Rafael in the ‘discovery’ of the sea route to India).

In biographical accounts, he is described as ‘pardo’, (literally ‘brown’), a term taken by some to signify a person of mixed-race, white European and African (or ‘New World’) parentage. McHardy speculates that he was “born to a White father and a Black mother.” The reverse possibility is too improbable to even consider, especially given what is known of Lusitano’s life.

McHardy states: “In the 16th century, Lisbon’s population was roughly 10 per cent Black; in Lusitano’s native Olivença, that figure was 4 per cent.” It would be interesting to know what the working definition of ‘Black’ was in arriving at those statistics. Did the term refer to exclusively to those of African origin, or to anyone deemed ‘non-white’?

But the statistic is no index of ‘acceptance’ or cosmopolitanism, as McHardy makes clear: “Diverse, southern Europe may have been, inclusive it was not. The atrocity of the trade in enslaved Africans was underway, conducted with violence, both physical and social. Most Black people in Iberia were enslaved; those who were free lived under the threat of being kidnapped as ‘runaways’.” It is against this backdrop that we must look at the life of Vicente Lusitano.

He became a Roman Catholic priest and was employed as a teacher in Padua, Viterbo and Rome (1551). But never had a post in the church, de rigeur for a male European composer of his time. McHardy writes: “Portugal reserved salaried roles in the church for white clergy; Regardless of ability, Black clerics were excluded.”

Sometime after 1553, Lusitano converted to Protestantism, married and traveled to Germany. Nothing further is known beyond 1561-1562. Reading between these sparse biographical details, could his conversion have been a means of escaping discrimination and gaining better acceptance? Conversion is a sensitive topic today, but it is worth noting that the motivation to convert can have as much to do with fleeing injustice in an existing social order as with embracing a new faith.

Thankfully, some of Lusitano’s music survives, and the compositions can be dated. Music historian Robert Stevenson supposes that Lusitano worked as a tutor to the aristocratic Lencastre family. The Lencastres moved to Rome as ambassadors at the papal court in 1551, the same year Lusitano was known to be in that city. Furthermore, Lusitano wrote a piece (‘Quid montes, Musae’) about this event.

He is acknowledged as the first Black composer to have his music published. In 1551, his ‘Liber rimusepigramatum, containing 23 motets was published, a treatise on music theory (1553), running into three editions, and a manuscript on the ‘art of singing’ (dedicated to Marc’ Antonio Colonna, Duke of Marsi) .

One of Lusitano’s motets, ‘Beatiomnes qui timent Dominum’ from a book copied at the ducal court in Stuttgart, dated 1562, is described by McHardy as “perhaps the only example of a 16th-century Catholic-born Iberian writing specifically for Protestant liturgy. ”

There are several examples of Vicente Lusitano’s motets on YouTube. No portrait survives of this enigmatic composer. Instead, The Guardian featured a very interesting painting currently at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon: ‘The Engagement of St Ursula and Prince Etherius’ a panel from the Saint Auta Altarpiece commissioned in 1522 by Eleanor, Queen of Portugal for the Convent of Madre de Deus, Lisbon. It features a group of African musicians at the Portuguese court.

McHardy draws attention to the counterpoint in Lusitano’s music. Polyphony and counterpoint underpin the serious study of classical music, and were broadly regarded as not only the features that “elevated it to the dignity of art”, but also as the preserve of the “race blanche”, quoting the 19th-century theorist François – Joseph Fétis. Lusitano’s motets and treatises on music theory at a stroke dispel the latter racist assumption and poignantly remind us how selective music history has been, in who it remembers and on whom it bestows posterity.

Author of this article had the insight and awareness of his own upper-caste privilege.

Hes: “We never try to understand the struggles of aspiration that force changes in the individuals seeking acceptance.” This is why the issues of names, surnames, ‘native’ villages, addresses, are such minefields. Instead of lecturing others to “take pride” in them, one should call the system that engenders the “shame” in the first place, instead of defending that same system by invoking “heritage”.

Something to think about the next time one sings self-indulgently a hymn of praise to God in a sacred space, and ask that same God to heal us of the sin of caste blindness, the blindness to one’s own caste privilege.

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