Women’s History Month 2016: Courtly Renaissance BrassChix

This is the second installment of Women’s (Brass) History Month 2016. See here for previous posts.

This week, let’s take a look at what role women musicians had in the courts of the Renaissance, and in particular, shift our focus to the music-mad court of 1590s Mantua, where Duke Vincenzzo I cultivated a lively court. He paid lavishly for his female singers, asking his musical director, Claudio Monteverdi (yes, that Monteverdi), to find the best (and cheapest, apparently) performers to entertain him (1).

Among the roster of musicians in the register, two sisters, Lucia and Isabetta Pelizzari, appear as singers and instrumentalists in their father’s family band. The instruments they mastered? Cornetto and trombone (2). The Pelizzari family likely was middle-class, solidly placed enough to justify musical education for all their children, but not nobility, for whom giving a woman a brass instrument to blow into would have been an unsightly disgrace. Such a family would need all capable bodies to lend their talents to the business. They made their living from their craft, and they delivered it well. By all accounts, women in Italy had risen above courtier status (trained musicians whose education was intended to give them access to higher courts and power) and emerged as regarded performers in their own right (3).

Many female musicians are listed in the books of Italian Renaissance courts, mostly vocalists who would accompany themselves on lute or harp, but Lucia and Isabetta surely set a precedent for aspiring performers going into the 17th century. There was already a strong tradition of portraying women holding all variety of instruments, including sackbut, in works of art depicting the muses and other mythological scenes. It’s not a far leap to guess that women saw themselves represented in art and thought, “I ought to give that a try.”


Image: Detail of a tablecloth featuring musicians (both male and female) in the court of a German duke. 1560s.

Women’s History Month 2016 – Brassy Ladies Through the Ages

Welcome to another Women’s History Month, and as a bonus, Happy International Women’s Day!

Last year, I took a look at five different women who made or are making waves as brass musicians: Melba Liston, Megumi Kanda, Velvet Brown, Lauren Vernonie Curran, and Jan Kagarice.

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!