A Life in the Baroque: WHRB Interviews William Christie


In December, WHRB presented a 75th birthday tribute to William Christie, the conductor, harpsichordist, teacher, and founder of Les Arts Florissants. Here are some highlights of the November interview which was featured in the William Christie Orgy. For the full interview, listen here.

When William Christie graduated from Harvard College in 1966, he did not major in music. We began by asking him how he realised he wanted to make the switch.

I started out as a premed at Tufts, then did biochemistry with George Wald. One by one, the things I thought I might be good at, or might be good for my career or good for my image, toppled. It was in my junior year that I started to listen to people who were saying important things about life’s work. G. Wallace, “Woody”, Woodworth said to me “Look, you’ve got to think about what you’d like to do. Doing what you like to do is the most wonderful thing in the world.”

My life back then was punctuated by these moments where time stands still, then all of a sudden you realize that after that, things aren’t going to be the same. One of the most powerful was a weekend where my future teacher at Yale, Ralph Kirkpatrick was playing at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre. It was an immense marathon of Bach; He was playing the first and second books of_The Well-Tempered Clavier_. I left the theater the second day, and I wrote him a letter essentially saying in gushing terms, “You’ve changed my life.” And he wrote back, which was completely unexpected.

Christie moved to Paris in 1970, but why Paris, and what was the early music scene there like?

I think [moving to Paris] had to do with my love of French music, Baroque music, and I suppose, my love of France. I was looking for a place to go and I was leaving under a cloud. Yale had been wonderful and traumatic because of many reasons, but the most important reason was the Vietnam War. To stay at Yale, I [was in] ROTC and went to boot camp in Fort Benning, Georgia during the summer, which was kind of traumatic. Someone from Dartmouth heard me in a recital and I was given a year’s contract at Dartmouth, but I realized this contract probably wouldn’t get renewed and that at the end of the year, I’d be army fodder once again. I arrived in Paris very happy to be a long way away from all this, and I discovered of course that I wasn’t alone. We were maybe ten or fifteen American kids, essentially draft-dodgers.

Was Paris the place to go if you wanted to concentrate on historic instruments and 17th and 18th century repertory? No, it wasn’t. I was wearing rose-colored glasses back then. France was a country that received people like me, people who needed essentially a haven.

Early music was not at all as advanced in France as it was in England or in Holland. What that meant was I traveled a lot. I was living the life of the Frenchman, or so I thought. I got myself involved with some extraordinary young musicians doing contemporary music. I forged ties with people in Holland, went off to audition for [Gustav] Leonhardt. I did lots of work in England, which meant that within two or three years, I found myself as a kind of a nomad specialist in contemporary music and a harpsichordist doing 18th and 17th century music.

After less than a decade in Europe, Christie founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979. We asked how he chose to focus on this particular period of music.

I’ve always done what I like the best. Our credo, our manifesto, was, “We will bring to the fore French, unknown, minor masters and make them great once again.” It was ambitious and rather arrogant. We also proclaimed very loudly that we wanted to question people like Purcell and Monteverdi, that too was a bit pretentious on our part, because essentially we were saying, “we don’t particularly like what we hear, in terms of recordings, or perhaps even other groups of people, that come through Paris. We want to do something different. We want to shake them up.”

We asked Mr. Christie to comment on some of the works featured in The William Christie Orgy. All recording are by Les Arts Florissants.

Bouzignac: Te Deum and Motets (Harmonica Mundi 1993)

[Bouzignac was] someone who was living in a time when the music he was creating had a particular obligation to move its listeners to piety, to religious exaltation. It’s immensely powerful stuff.

We have a kind of an elite troupe within Les Arts Florissants, and we always have. Singers who love to sing with each other, and who like the idea of repertory that they’ve got to sort of fashion and remake into repertory that’s loved and known. We’re doing pieces of [composers] that are extraordinarily important for us, but are totally unknown. For the most part, we’ve had to do editions of their works from original sources. We began years ago with Michel Lambert, arguably one of the best vocal composers of his time. Now we’re going back through this enormously rich tradition, which was totally lost, of the composers of the airs de cour. What’s heartening for me is that now you’ll find someone coming up to me or coming up to us and saying, “Ah, my God, I was moved to absolute tears listening to that lament of Moulignié, and it’s something I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”

Handel: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (live, 2005)

I think that one of the great qualities of early repertory is that it is less known. With all the reverence and the enormous respect that you have [for composers] like Beethoven,Haydn, Schubert or Schumann, a sense of newness is perhaps not what you would talk about. Me listening in 1966 to Hippolyte et Aricie, it was – my God, it was music from Mars.

It’s a piece that exalts the humanist ideas of Mr. Handel, who I think is one of the last of the great humanists, someone who believes in the absolute necessity for mankind to express himself, and the exaltation of all that.

Handel: Messiah (Harmonia Mundi, 1994)

We all know the Messiah. I’m concerned about how you can give eloquence to a piece without destroying it. Is my input very strong? It sure is. Am I proud of what I’m doing in terms of Handel’s Messiah? Well, of course I am. Has it changed over the years? Of course it has.

I’ve just been doing Messiah in the Far East the last month. It’s a piece that moves me. It’s a piece that I want to move others as well. My best way of giving eloquence to this piece is to remain in a framework, but pushing out in every direction. That’s to say, my input is important in terms of dynamics, in terms of the feeling I’m giving to a text, the freedom I give to singers. I still think that the respect and ingredients one uses are terribly important, but they have limits as well.

It’s an extraordinarily honest piece, which is saying something new. It’s just like a Bach cantata: you have words, and you have music which echoes and puts greater value into the words. The means are very simple: it has to do with instruments and voices.

Bach, J.S.: Mass in b, S.232 (Harmonia Mundi, 2008)

It is monumental and it’s serious. The mass is his calling card. He knew what he was doing, he knew what he wanted future generations to think about him. In terms of his craft, he wanted to be known as the great contrapuntalist. Not as a performer really, but as someone who knew more about counterpoint, which is an immensely intellectual undertaking.

I waited a long time to do the Mass. My mother performed the Gloria way back in the ’50s. I’ve known it for a long time, but it’s a piece that you can’t simply do without an awful lot of thought. What are my views on it? Well, obviously, it’s timeless. Do you have to sort of bow down to it and sort of make it sound desperately serious? No, of course not. You’re dealing with a piece which alternates some of the most extraordinary contrapuntal writing with dance tunes, popular music, things he could have heard in Dresden and probably did. That’s an important aspect of this music. When I was approaching this piece, I said to myself “take the awful seriousness away, you’ve got to perform as well as conduct.”

Gay: The Beggar's opera (live, 2018)

John Lithgow, Phillip Heckscher and I decided we would do a Beggar's Opera. I formed an improvising orchestra. Nothing was written out. And every night, brilliant (and for the most part French) kids [were] playing. It was two violins, a viola, a cello, a flute, a theorbo, a harpsichord. It was like a Duke Ellington orchestra of the 20s or 30s. You’d have a melody line, you’d have a bass sometimes.

Then we modernized the text and it became immensely powerful, just as irreverent and naughty as the original, but taking place in contemporary England with all the slimy political goings-ons, between conservatives and socialists. I think it’s going to be wonderfully revived, because Brexit will have happened since, and it could be a very, very good commentary.

We closed the interview by asking Christie what advice he would give to young people as they consider whether to pursue a career in music.

I think once you have the flame, it’s not a question of just saying no. I had a kind of Hesitation Waltz for four years and then finally someone shook me. Someone who has the sensitivity and the love and the feeling for music, of any kind of music, they’ve got to do it. It’s bigger than you are. Music was the thing that really accompanied the most profound moments in my young life. I was never alone, because music was there. It would help me out when I was feeling blue or feeling wonderful or whatever, you see. The advice you can give to people is, “Look, it could be difficult. Try it. Maybe you’re not going to make it professionally, but you’re going to carry this music along with you as something which is going to help your life and make it better.”

//This interview has been shortened for print, listen to the full recording here. This interview was conducted and produced by Jon Lehrich, a DJ on Classical Music.