Monday 5 December 2022

Barely registering on the historical record, Vincente Lusitano's music proves a richly rewarding experience

Vincente Lusitano: Motets; The Marian Consort, LINN Records
Vincente Lusitano: Motets; The Marian Consort, LINN Records
Reviewed 5 December 2022; (★★★★★)

This disc from The Marian Consort presents a little more than a third of the total surviving output of a composer who virtually disappeared from the historical record. A glimpse into a richly imaginative work, performed with luminous clarity

Like many Renaissance composers, we know frustratingly little about the life of Portuguese composer Vincente Lusitano. Even his name isn't a help, it simply means Portuguese. He appears in the historical record for around a decade, then disappears again. Later sources fill in some background, but a manuscript by João Franco Barreto written in the mid-seventeenth century provides one important key. João Franco Barreto describes Lusitano as ‘pardo’, a Portuguese term used to denote a mixed-race person of European and African parentage. Thanks to the significant slave trade in 16th century Portugal, there was a significant population of people of African descent. Lusitano was a priest, and whilst mixed-race men did become priests the salaried posts were all reserved for white men.

Thanks to the publication of his book of motets in Rome in 1551, Lusitano becomes the first published Black composer. During the 1550s, Lusitano was the music tutor to the son of the Portuguese ambassador to the Holy See, and the book of motets is dedicated to the ambassador, so it is presumably him that we can thank for the book's production. Unlike some composers, Lusitano's music does not seem to have been spread by word of mouth with manuscript copies circulating. His reputation during his lifetime was mainly as a theorist rather than as a composer, and some of his music was created to demonstrate these theories.

So, what do we have of Lusitano? Well, there is the published book from 1551, Liber primus epigramatum containing 23 motets, plus a published treatise and another manuscript treatise both of which are concerned with improvised counterpoint. The manuscript treatise includes one of Lusitano's motets as a demonstration. There is also one, intriguing survival, one of Lusitano's motets in a book from the ducal court in Stuttgart, dated 1562. The historical record for Lusitano stops at 1561 when he seems to have converted to Protestantism, married and was seeking a post in Germany.

This disc of Vincente Lusitano's motets from The Marian Consort, artistic director Rory McCleery, on Linn Records, provides us with something of an overview. The ensemble presents ten of Lusitano's motets, performed by a vocal ensemble of 15 singers.

Some of the motets on the disc are deliberate homages to Josquin, setting the same text and including elements of parody. One of these is the eight-voice motet Preter rerum seriem with its slow-moving cantus in the soprano part and three alto parts creating a sense of stately seriousness. This is rich, sober, traditional music asking to be performed in a glorious acoustic. The five-voiced Regina Coeli is more mobile, more varied with a great deal of imitation to delightfully mobile effect.

Aspice Domine (five voices) returns us to the more sober style, slightly stately but full of lovely details and rich textures. As with several motets on the disc, Lusitano seems to have all the time in the world and uses this to create structures which are large-scale and wonderfully varied, and sometimes the harmonic shifts are intriguing, not quite what might be expected. Ave spes nostra (five voices) has a gloriously dark texture with the low voices predominating to striking effect, the imitations giving the music movement and a certain restlessness over the harmonic stability.

Salve Regina (six voices) is another Josquin homage, adding an extra voice to Josquin's original. The way the voices move in imitation round the cantus firmus gives a striking rocking motion to the music.

Heu Domine (four voices) comes from Lusitano's treatise and features a strikingly chromatic main theme, which gives the music a harmonic instability that is striking and moves Lusitano much further towards Gesualdo and away from Josquin. If Lusitano's earlier motets on this disc have tended towards static harmonies enlivened by mobile textures, this explores the harmonic possibilities implicit in the chromaticism.

With Emendemus in melius (five voices) we return to Lusitano's more familiar style except with can sometimes detect hints of the other Lusitano, that from Heu Domine, in some of intriguing harmonic shifts. Sancta Maria (six voices) again give us Lusitano spinning engagingly mobile textures.

Setting part of the Stabat Mater, the five-voiced Sancta mater, istud agas shows Lusitano's delight at working on a large scale, the sober sound world enlivened by plenty of imitation and chant-like lines weaving in and out of each other. It is music for the moment, with all the time in the world, ending with a glorious Amen.

The longest work on the disc, Inviolata (eight voices) is another Josquin homage. Structurally imaginative including a deft canon, the work belies all this complex detail. Instead, we are taken by the gloriously rich, slow-moving texture. This certainly isn't Josquin, Lusitano is glorying in the rich, imaginative textures.

The singing here always has a luminous clarity to it, so that Lusitano's textures are presented with each line clear yet the whole drawing together with a richness and warmth that the music deserves. This is a lovely disc, one which makes Lusitano's music stand out, making us want to explore his sound world further. I do hope that it impels other groups to explore this neglected repertoire.

Vincente Lusitano Motets
Praeter rerum seriem; Regina caeli; Aspice Domine; Ave spes nostra, Dei genitrix; Salve regina; Heu me, Domine; Emendemus in melius; Sancta Maria; Sancta mater, istud agas; Inviolata, integra et casta es
The Marian Consort (artistic director Rory McCleery)
Recorded in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 15-19 November 2021

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