Welcome to another Women’s History Month, and as a bonus, Happy International Women’s Day!
This year, inspired by yet another comment at a concert along the lines of “there sure aren’t many female trombone players”, I’m going to give four short history lessons on the importance of women to brass performance through the ages. Let’s get started!
Installment Number One: Get Thee to a Nunnery!
Western music tradition as we know it today is a direct product of centuries of experimentation and development by none other than European religious orders. Monks and nuns throughout the Middle Ages composed, refined, and performed sacred works whose practice would come to define classical theory. It should be no surprise to us to learn, then, that instruments of all sorts were being played in convents across Europe, despite the Catholic Church’s decree that women should not play wind instruments. Nuns have always been pretty rebellious and evidence out of Italy suggests that some of the sisters were talented cornett and sackbut players. Speculation has it that an absence of male voices in the convent choir would lead to a need for lower voices, and what better choice than a trombone?
Says Bottrigari of the nuns of the San Vito convent:
“[the nuns play] cornetts and trombones [cornetti & tromboni], which are the most difficult of musical instruments….with such grace, and with such a nice manner [con tanta gratia, & con si gentil maniera], and such sonorous and just intonation of the notes that even people who are esteemed most excellent in the profession confess that it is incredible to anyone who does not actually see and hear it. And their passagework is not of the kind that is chopped up, furious, and continuous, such that it spoils and distorts the principal air, which the skillful composer worked ingeniously to give to the cantilena; but at times and in certain places there are such light, vivacious embellishments that they enhance the music and give it the greatest spirit” (Bottrigari-MacClintock 59; Bottrigari 49)
Looks like things haven’t changed much. Keep up the good work, sisters!