Who was the first Black composer to make it to your classical radar? Probably Duke Ellington, Florence Price, or William Grant Still, right? Well while they, and many others, were among the first Black people to do many things, none of them were by any means the first. Hello, I’m Garrett McQueen, and on today’s edition of Noteworthy I’d like to introduce you to a Black man who was composing music all the way back in the 1500s, if you can believe it! A man named Vicente Lusitano.
Written records weren’t as thorough or comprehensive back in the 16th century, so there are many things about Vicente that the world may never know. What is known, though, is that he lived in Portugal, likely born in the year of 1520. Like many composers of his day, he was tightly connected to the Catholic Church, and served as a priest as well as a music teacher and composer.
In many writings, Vicente Lusitano is described as pardo, or of mixed European and non-European heritage. With many believing that his mother was of African descent, Vicente is a prime example of Black involvement in western classical music since its earliest days, with works like this one, his “Aspice Domine,” surviving the tests of time.
Until the late 19th century, Vicente was all but ignored by English-language texts, with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 catapulting his legacy into the contemporary sphere. He’s age old and still relatively unknown, but without a doubt, one of history’s most noteworthy composers.
Noteworthy is a production of WDAV classical public radio.