Chineke! Voices: Vicente Lusitano

The music of Vicente Lusitano
Chineke! Voices, Joseph McHardy
St Martin-in-the-Fields, 18 June 2022

Vicente Lusitano (c1520-c1561)
Beati omnes qui timent Dominum; Hic est Michael Archangelus;
Emendemus; Ave Spes Nostra; O Beata Maria; Regina Coeli;
Quid Montes, Musae?; Salve Regina; Inviolata, integra et casta es

The latest incarnation of the Chineke! Foundation (whose aim is to champion change and celebrate diversity in classical music) is Chineke! Voices, a group of professional black and ethnically diverse singers whose debut concert at their base at St Martin-in-the-Fields was dedicated to the music of the 17th-century Portuguese composer Vicente Lusitano (c1520-c1561). Lusitano was probably the first European composer of African descent to be published in Europe (Liber primus epigramatum 1551). He was a key musical figure although, helped by a bit of fake news by another musician, Vicentino, who lost a feud with Lusitano over a complex argument on musical theory. he has largely been written out of musical history. Lusitano’s music has been researched and edited for this concert by the conductor Joseph McHardy.

Vicente Lusitano’s genetic roots are open to discussion, but he is generally accepted as being of mixed European and African parents. He was a priest, a teacher, a composer, and a music theorist. The Guidonian hand pictured above is from his composition manual Introduttione Facilissima (Rome 1553, Venice 1561). We don’t even know his real name – the word ‘Lusitano’ merely translates as ‘Portuguese’. He moved to Italy by 1551 and then, after failing to find a suitable church post because of his ethnicity, on to Germany ten years later, becoming a Protestant and marrying. An excellent background to Lusitano and his music by Joseph McHardy can be found here. There is another article here.

The Chineke! Voices concert featured eight pieces, representing the range of Lusitano’s music, all of which is written in complex counterpoint resulting in a wonderful intensity of sound. The counterpoint is unremitting – in a good way. There are few moments of repose, but the texture changes by varying the thematic structure, with musical passages and words passed from voice to voice in a most beguiling manner. With voice parts ranging from five to eight, it is virtually impossible to follow individual lines, but little motifs create interest and focus the mind – for example the little scale passages in O Beata Maria. I overheard a fellow audience member say that the music “flowed straight down my ears”.

The concert opened with the Psalm Beati omnes qui timent Dominum, a work that appears to have been composed for the Lutheran Duke of Württemberg in Stuttgart. It builds its contrapuntal wizardry around a cantus firmus, here sung by a children’s choir from the church of St John the Divine, Kennington. The second half opened with the motet Regina coeli, with its bold use of chromatism and repeated Alleluias, often using little scale passages. It is the piece that could have started the feud with Vicentino. It was followed by a secular piece, Quid Montes, Musae? which reflects his desire to move to Italy.

Two short solo lute pieces by Gombert and Josquin provided moments of very quiet contrast, and the lute joined with three high voices to complete the six parts of the Salve Regina. The evening ended with what must be Lusitano’s most elaborate work, and one that reflects his admiration for the music of Josquin des Prez – Inviolata, integra et casta es. That admiration didn’t stop him from taking a Josquin five-part motet and adding three additional parts to it in a contrapuntal tour de force.

The nine international singers of Chineke! Voices from which the various (usually five-strong) forces were drawn were very effective, their different vocal styles resulting in varying aural textures for each piece. Although in Lusitano’s tightly wrought counterpoint all the voice parts were equally important, a beautifully clear and pure-toned soprano and a reliably solid bass voice helped to add security to several of the pieces. Joseph McHardy’s impressively self-deprecating direction with his careful indication of all the complex vocal entries an object lesson in conducting technique.

Chineke! Voices is a very welcome addition to the Chineke! Foundation musical stable, as is this focus on a relatively unknown and frequently overlooked Renaissance composer. A recording of Lusitano’s music is in the offing, as is further research work by Joseph McHardy.