Trombones on five continents during the Renaissance

Renaissance trombone

A stone carving on one of the 4 posa chapels occupying the corners of the atrium of the church of the Franciscan monastery of San Miguel, Huejotzingo, Puebla, Mexico

A recent book by Stewart Carter The Trombone in the Renaissance: a History in Pictures and Documents, sheds light in some previously dark corners of the history of the trombone. Among other things, it documents the use of the trombone on five different continents in the sixteenth century.

For the record, here are the numbers of items the book contains from various geographic areas, from most to least:

  • Italy, 178
  • Germany, 130
  • France and the Low Countries, 78
  • Spain, 45
  • England, 39
  • Asia, Africa, and the New World, 20
  • Portugal, 12
  • Scandinavia, 4
  • Eastern Europe, 4

Asia, Africa, and the New World? Where do they come from?

These numbers do not reflect the importance of the trombone in each of these areas. Instead, they reflect the amount of archival scholarship that has been published. Carter’s organization makes it difficult to separate France from the Low Countries, but the trombone was much more important in Spain than in France.

It was probably also much more important in Portugal than in France, too, but Carter relied mostly on published archival documents. Portuguese archives have attracted much less scholarly attention than countries closer to the top of the list.

Portugal and Spain were the first European colonial powers. And that is why we find references to trombones in North and South America as well as China, India, Angola, and perhaps Mozambique.

Portuguese colonies

Renaissance trombone

Detail from the St. Auta Altarpiece, Lisbon

In about 1547, Fernão Mendez Pinto visited islands off Canton and described Chinese banqueting houses where instrumental ensembles performed. He listed six instruments familiar to Portuguese readers, including the trombone. He noted that many other unfamiliar instruments performed there as well. Those, of course, would be Chinese instruments (Carter doc. 14-6, p. 359).

Ludovicus Frois reported from Goa, a Portuguese outpost on the west coast of India, in 1552. There was a cathedral there, and every Tuesday there was a mass in polyphony, accompanied by trombones, shawms, and recorders, which must have been modeled on Portuguese practice (Carter doc. 14-9, p. 360).

A letter from Father Andreas Galdames written in Goa in 1556 mentions trombones and shawms in the celebration of a Mass, then goes on to describe a special welcoming celebration. Two ships came to Goa from Sofala, a port in Mozambique (a Portuguese colony on the east coast of Africa) bearing distinguished visitors.

The second to arrive was identified as the “captain” of Sofala. His arrival was greeted with trombones, shawms, and trumpets. Galdames mentions the priest who had arrived first as participating in the celebration. The instruments certainly included Goa’s resident musicians. They may have included the captain’s own band from Sofala (Carter doc. 14-15, p. 364).

A third document in Portuguese was written from Luanda, Angola, by its governor Paulo Dias de Novais, in 1578. He reported that the African natives in that west coast colony had developed considerable ability playing recorders and asked for trombones and shawms to be sent for the dozen or so Africans who wanted to learn to play them (Carter doc. 14-18, p. 365).

These four documents demonstrate the use of trombones in parts of Asia and Africa controlled or at least influenced by the Portuguese. I find no reference to their South American colony, Brazil, in Carter’s book. I think I can safely assume that once a larger selection of Portuguese archival documents become available, Brazil will be represented as well.

Spanish colonies

I will not attempt to describe the 17 Spanish-language documents individually. They come from the present day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.

Hernán Cortes took a wind band on a journey to Honduras, but mostly such ensembles were confined to safer areas far from the frontier. As in Portuguese Goa, the major cities of New Spain had cathedrals, complete with choirs and wind bands fully capable of supplying the most sophisticated polyphonic music. Documents also demonstrate that trombones could also be found in parish churches and non-cathedral cities.

As in Angola, the native population quickly embraced European music and learned to play all of the instruments the Spanish had brought with them. And it should be no surprise that the Spanish government from King Philip II on down sought to control developments (especially expenses) from Spain, with mixed success.

There should be no surprise that Carter found documents from New Spain. English-language books about music there, including the use of trombones, have been available for more than half a century. The few Portuguese-language documents he included are a revelation. I certainly hope they will spark some new archival research.

Photo credits: Public domain, from Will Kimball
Carter’s book has a different image of the carvings at the Posa Chapel, but not the St. Auta Altarpiece

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