Interview with Holly Scarborough, medieval and Renaissance flutist und managing director ReRenaissance, December 2023
Thomas Christ: Dear Holly, it is an honor and a pleasure to continue our traditional interview series with a connoisseur of early music at the turn of the year.What were your first musical contacts in the USA? Was there a lot of music in your family, when did you discover the flute?
HS: My dad is a professional golfer and my mom studied English literature and is a librarian; our family culture reflected these two influences as I was growing up. Almost every weekend, we had tickets to some sort of live event, whether it was a baseball or hockey game, a local production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a Shakespeare play, or a museum visit. We also had annual passes to Disneyland for many years. I’m pretty sure that my musical awakening was as a three-year-old traipsing around the Disney Gesamtkunstwerk: I experienced deep in my soul the transporting effect music can have on the imagination and the variety of feelings it can conjure. In that world, every attraction and ride comes with a soundtrack, and I learned the power of this kind of functional music and the childlike pleasure a well-timed and coordinated musical moment can deliver.
Instrumental music was taught in our public schools, and when I was nine years old I could choose any band or orchestra instrument I wanted to learn. I chose the flute after a live demonstration at a school assembly because I liked the way it sounded. After signing up and getting my instrument, I remember how mortified I was when I first brought it home, put the shiny pieces together, and tried to blow into it – nothing! With some courage, I forged ahead despite showing no natural talent. It was fun to start new instruments with all my friends, and I continued to enjoy the social element of music-making in different youth orchestras, honor bands, and summer camps. I started teaching lessons and coming up with project ideas, eventually leading our 200-person high-school marching band as drum major, marching down the street with a big mace and conducting field shows.
TC: How do you get from Orange County in Southern California to the world of the European middle ages at the Schola in Basel?
HS: I moved away from home when I was 17 and studied music performance and philosophy at a liberal arts college near Chicago. Beauty, ethics, philosophy of the arts, and the role of music in culture seemed like important issues that I wanted to spend time studying, and my research projects included Stoics and the role of speech, music of the 18th-century Shakers, and political songs of the American civil war. After college, I taught private lessons, was a musical director in a youth creative arts program, taught band in public schools in Madison, Wisconsin, and co-founded a community choir in Atlanta, Georgia, which were all great ways for me to apply everything I had learned about the value of music in society and test how it works in practice.
When I moved to Europe, I went through a different sort of education: I took a break from music and spent two years focusing exclusively on travel. I experienced all the cities, castles, churches, and art that I could possibly squeeze out of my budget. After this close contact with history, and with my imagination all fired up in a way that it probably hadn’t been since I was a child at Disneyland, I contacted Liane Ehlich about studying Renaissance flute. I was attracted to its warm timbre and the visual simplicity of the instrument – it’s a single piece of wood with seven holes cut into the top – and learning 16th-century repertoire became a way for me to connect with history in a way I had never been able to do before. I studied the solmisation system and Renaissance dance and began lessons with Mara Winter on medieval flute before beginning my master’s degree at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where I had lessons with Johanna Bartz and Marc Lewon. I got my degree in medieval and Renaissance music performance in 2022; I actually don’t play baroque flute.
TC: In contrast to classical and baroque music, the musical sources of the Renaissance and even more so those of the Middle Ages are rather sparse. What are the most important contemporary witnesses for your research, manuscripts, and what role do paintings from the visual arts play?
HS: Yes, and when it is even further refined to secular rather than sacred and instrumental rather than vocal music, there are even fewer sources. We know from court records, theoretical treatises, literature, and iconography that music functioned in a variety of settings, such as processions, ceremonies, dining, and dancing, and that instrumental music also offered entertainment at both formal courtly banquets and casual peasant gatherings, and a great part of a musician’s skill back then lay in memorization and improvisation. Proposing instrumentation and repertoire for such occasions demands creativity as a modern performer. One must zoom out and survey other sources besides music – the first to mention transverse flutes in instrumentation is the Arnt von Aich Liederbuch from 1515 – to get clues about performance. For example, I used Maximilian I’s tournament- and dance manuscript of «Freydal» (1512/1518) as a starting point to research the flute and drum, an ensemble pair I’ve been able to recreate in Zweigulden. In addition, a narrative poem by Machaut, «La Prise d’Alexandrie», makes a long list of instruments, including the transverse flute; therefore, we know that this instrument was known in France in 1369. As we built our Parlamento program dedicated to Machaut, I could feel confident about the flute’s place in that repertoire.
TC: At the first and extremely successful Renaissance Festival in Basel in September 2023, your still young ensemble ‘Parlamento’ positively surprised many visitors. Tell us briefly how this formation, this name and, in particular, this focus on the art of the late Middle Ages came about.
HS: Thanks, we enjoyed our performance! The four of us met at Schola in 2020 and bonded during Friday night Machaut parties, and this time of relaxed exploration led to the creation of our first concert program. Our ensemble name actually has two meanings. It is the title of a textless piece that we played at our first concert, coming from a medieval Tuscan manuscript. «Parlamento» also carries the idea of dialogue and speaking, which was reflected in our first concert program pairing French and Italian music of the 14th century as well as in our storytelling Nibelungenlied program. I think we all really enjoy this late medieval repertoire because it encompasses everything from monophonic music to music in four parts and we get to experiment with finding the right setting for each piece.
TC: Your new role as managing director of the association ReRenaissance, the Forum for Early Music, takes you into the field of music education in a market that is already saturated – at least for music programs after 1600. The musical treasures of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages are immeasurable, but also largely unknown. Does our niche offering for an inclined audience have natural limits or are we only at the beginning of a musical rediscovery?
HS: I am sure that no sort of limit exists and that there are still many people waiting to discover these treasures! I think that the best analogy for music listening is the world of food and dining out. We all have our basic meals that we naturally gravitate towards, and I think that our music preferences are sort of like these habits and tastes that develop with time. But most people eventually get ready to try something new and sometimes even fall in love with a new flavor! I remember my grandparents told the story of how they moved to California and discovered tacos for the first time – it was life-changing, and they started eating all kinds of spicy food and putting jalapeños on everything.
Like a restaurant serving a loyal clientele who appreciate high-quality ingredients, conscientious preparation techniques, and unique flavors, ReRenaissance will continue to create unique monthly concerts for its loyal public – and I believe that there are some people who still haven’t yet had their first taste but haven’t realized what they’re missing yet.
Website Holly Scarborough