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A Black Composer’s Legacy Flourishes 500 Years After His Birth


Lusitano was a talented, completed musician, not a pariah. Dr. Mastrocola noted that Lusitano’s religious conversion indicates that he had access to certain powerful, though heretical, social circles. Yet the episode with Vicentino demonstrates that Lusitano’s merits couldn’t overcome aspects just like the incuriosity of future scholars.

Today, Lusitano isn’t easy to review, even in case you can find performances of his music on YouTube. Little correspondence and few records of his life are known to have survived, each because earlier scholars had no interest and since his sociopolitical disenfranchisement constrained the production of such documents. Contextual evidence is critical, especially with respect to his identity.

We all know other pardo people existed in Sixteenth-century Portugal. On the time, 1000’s of African and African-descended people, most of whom were enslaved, lived within the country, including in Lusitano’s birth city, Olivença. Moreover, the main points of Lusitano’s peripatetic profession align with a 1518 papal bull prohibiting Black priests’ employment throughout the Catholic Church.

Particularly in its recursive moments of erasure, Lusitano’s experience as a historical figure illustrates the sort of collective activity that has traditionally excluded composers of African descent from classical music’s conventional performance and academic institutions. Melanie Zeck, a reference librarian on the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center and former reference librarian on the Center for Black Music Research, emphasized that the primary historians of Black classical music responded to those exclusionary tendencies by developing what she called a “totally separate practice from mainstream academic scholarship.”

“People would come together, musicians, business people, teachers, searching for historical truth,” Dr. Zeck said. That is similar reason Dr. Jones made her protest sign two years ago.

Now, the web and social media can empower these principles of Black music scholarship, though, as Dr. Zeck said, “misinformation abounds.” But for Lusitano, these technologies nevertheless have helped the truths of his life and music turn out to be more accessible than ever, 500 years after his birth.

Garrett Schumann is a composer and scholar who teaches on the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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