Professional women musicians in the Renaissance were usually singers, not instrumentalists. Usually. Women who learned to play instruments—especially aristocratic woman—usually didn’t take up trombone. Not usually.
Here and there, fascinating exceptions turn up. Including perhaps the Queen of England?
The illustration, by the way, is a detail from a 19th-century engraving made from an embroidered tablecloth, which was made in the 1560s. Portraits of a German count and his wife occupy the center of the tablecloth (no longer extant, but a photograph exists).
This woman is among 9 very aristocratic-looking men and women depicted with various instruments encircling the count and countess, while 16 elegantly dressed couples dance around the perimeter of the cloth.
Is this implied ensemble any more realistic than all the angel ensembles that had been depicted in paintings for centuries? Perhaps.
Queen Elizabeth of England
In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I’s private groom John Tamworth died. The executor of his will drew up a list of payments Tamworth had made out of the treasury for items for the queen’s personal use. Besides normal, expected expenses like clothes, there is an entry for “One greate sackbut provided for the Queens use.”
The entry certainly doesn’t prove that the queen took up bass trombone in her spare time, but it certainly does prove that she bought one.
Any number of handbooks written for the edification of noble households, to explain what a noble lifestyle looked like, warned against taking up wind instruments. Some even warned that trombones were a common taste, not fit for nobles.
If the queen didn’t play trombone, at least she had one around, probably an especially ornate looking one, in case she ever wanted to indulge in the guilty pleasure of hearing one of her household musicians play it for her.
The Pelizzari sisters of Mantua
Duke Vincenzo I of Mantua loved good music. He just didn’t like to pay his musicians very well. He constantly had to send his musical director, Claudio Monteverdi, to hire versatile musicians who would play for a pittance.
He willingly spent lavishly for good female singers, however. In 1587, the first year of his reign, he hired Antonio Pelizzari and his entire family: sons Annibale and Bartolomeo and daughters Lucia and Isabetta. Their duties included providing both instrumental and vocal music twice weekly and on special occasions.
Before joining the court at Mantua, the two women participated in a performance of of Edipo Tiranne in Venice (1585). Contemporary descriptions make it clear that they were not singers on that occasion. They played cornetto and trombone.
When Vincenzo visited Ferrara in 1589, he took four women singers along with him, including the Pelizzaris. There, too, records indicate that they played various instruments, including cornetto.
Instrumentalists who occasionally sang were commonplace in Italy and elsewhere at the time. And they were mostly men. In the case of Lucia and Isabetta Pelizzari, it appears that two women, primarily singers, occasionally played instruments, including trombone, at a very high level of proficiency.
Nuns in Bologna
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church just after the Council of Trent appear to have been on the same page as the Taliban when it came to the ministry of nuns.
Where before nuns had engaged in a very public ministry, afterward—at least in the areas closes to Rome—they were confined to their convents. Especially in Bologna, interaction with the outside world was kept to a minimum, but visitors could still hear them celebrate the liturgy.
That is, visitors could hear the nuns, but not see them!
The nuns were not happy with regulations that, for example, forbade them to sing from organ lofts or even move organ consoles to where they could not be seen from the external church. They devised means of obeying the letter of their Cardinals’ orders while flouting the spirit.
According to a decree of Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti in 1580, they were strictly forbidden to use any instruments except organ, harpsichord, and a viol for the bass when necessary. That concession proved sufficient loophole. Every treble choir needs a bass!
In 1576, a young woman named Maria Isabella Trombetta enrolled in the convent of Santi Gervasio e Protasio. Her surname implies that she was the daughter of a professional wind musician. Her dowry contract required her to bring her trombone with her in order to play the bass.
What did she do after the 1580 decree? She probably continued to play trombone, anyway. Records indicate that nuns in several other convents ignored that part of the decree. Trombones appear in the records at least two others besides Santi Gervasio e Protasio.
As I mentioned earlier, members of the nobility did not play trombone. That statement is true and well attested all over Europe, not just in England, and for several reasons. Among them, the embouchure necessary to play trombone or other wind instruments distorts the face and makes it ugly.
Cloistered nuns whose music was heard but not seen would have no reason to care about that. No one would have cared about how Maria Isabella looked even before she joined the convent. After all, she was just a commoner.
Maybe the other trombone-playing nuns also came from families of professional musicians. But maybe not. If nuns in convents played trombones, very probably some women who did not take religious orders also played trombone.
Sources: Craig Monson, “Disembodied Voices: Music in the Nunneries of Bologna in the Midst of the Counter-Revolution” in The Crannied Wall, ed. Craig Monson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992)
Susan Parisi, “Ducal Patronage of Music in Mantua, 1587-1627: An Archival Study” (Ph. D. dissertation: University of Illinois, 1989)