“French Classical Music Owes a Lot to American Universities”

Often dubbed “more French than the French,” the American harpsichordist and conductor William Christie has arguably done more than anyone else for the global revival of French baroque music.
William Christie. © Léa Crespi/Pasco&Co

William Christie was born in Buffalo, New York, but has lived in France since 1971 and became a member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts in 2008. In the United States, Christie teaches annually in Juilliard’s early music program, and on April 24, he will perform at FIAF in New York City before bringing his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, named after an opera by the 17th century composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, to Carnegie Hall on April 25-26. In August, Christie also hosts his renowned summer festival Dans les Jardins de William Christie with more than 50 concerts on the lawns of his estate in western France. On a mild, late winter afternoon, we caught up with him over the phone as he was planting lilacs in his garden.

France-Amérique: The pandemic was hard on the concert scene in France, with all the curfews and lockdowns. How have you been holding up?

William Christie: France did have many lockdowns, but in Spain all the concert halls stayed open, so thankfully we were able to continue doing concerts, particularly in Barcelona, but also in Luxembourg and around Europe, if often with limited audiences. Here in France, I’ve also been able to put on concerts at my house with its large garden, so we could still host our annual summer festival outdoors, which was wonderful. So the years were not all lost, thankfully.

Judging from the audiences at concerts in both America and France, more young people have fallen in love with baroque and early music recently.

I think that many in the younger generations like to hear something else than the Beethoven and Brahms pieces that have been on the repertoire for so long. In France, tickets are less expensive, so our concerts are more accessible to the young. We also have a residency at the Philarmonie in Paris that was built by Jean Nouvel to attract younger audiences, and it seems that it’s been quite successful.

When you moved to France in 1971, many of the composers you now perform were almost forgotten. You have done a lot to resurrect French baroque artists like Rameau and Charpentier.

Rameau was never entirely forgotten, but he certainly did not have the reputation of Bach or Handel, who had their resurrections much earlier. With Charpentier, Michel Lambert, Etienne Moulinié, they were neglected for too long. Movements are started by individuals, it’s not something that just grows spontaneously of itself. In the U.S., the early music scene was resurrected primarily by universities and instrument manufacturers, since the best harpsichord makers were in America. The scholarship at American universities is unrivaled. For many years, American universities spent more resources on French music history than most French universities!

Any performer and conductor of baroque music will face challenges of how to remain true to the baroque tradition, while also reflecting the creative freedom of the ensemble and making interpretations that feel fresh, dynamic, and innovative. How do you approach that challenge?

I think baroque music actually gives us more freedom, because of the challenges of performing this music – we know very little of the source material and the instructions. Most baroque music is less complete than the 20th-century scores of, say, Boulez or Shostakovich. They would give you lots of information on which instruments to play and how to play them, so essentially the composers have already given all the information a contemporary interpreter needs, and in that sense the interpretation becomes less important, whereas with someone like Rameau or Charpentier, where there is not much source material, the choice of instrumentation and the stylistic requirements are much wider. The interpreter still needs to be historically informed, but if we perform Lully, it is both a Lully and a Christie performance, where we operate in a milieu where we know the guidelines and the boundaries, but still take a lot of freedom with every interpretation we make. My input has always been incredibly personal, but it’s guided by a framework, with clear boundaries, and I don’t push out of that.

You recently held a performance under the famous stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. One benefit of being based in France must be this ability to perform at some of the most beautiful cathedrals, gardens, and spaces across Europe. Which are some of your personal favorites?

We have performed at so many extraordinary palaces, churches, gardens, and concert halls. We just did the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, with its tremendous acoustics. I love Wigmore Hall in London, the Staatsoper in Vienna, and we have played the Royal Chapel at Versailles.

You’re also a keen gardener. Tell me about your garden in Thiré, in the Vendée département.

Well, it’s the planting season right now, so I’ve spent the day replanting a collection of lilacs and restoring a 17th-century stone wall. We’re also planting 500 young oaks for a new wood in a neighboring field. For historical models, I look particularly at English gardens and the arts and crafts gardens of the late 1800s.

Where is your favorite garden?

Oh, that’s a very long list! Nowadays, I often try to combine my trips for performances with visits to gardens, so I just went to the extraordinary gardens outside of Madrid, El Capricho, and then we went to Retiro, which is also a magnificent park. In France, I like the great gardens of Versailles and the botanical gardens in Menton on the Italian border. The Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts outside of New York City has a wonderful mix of music and a pleasure garden.

The French-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently created a garden in Toronto, inspired by Bach’s cello suites. Do you see a commonality between music and gardening?

Absolutely, gardens are part of music, and they always have been. In the 17th and 18th centuries, gardens were the stage. Handel was performed in Vauxhall Gardens in London and the gardens of Versailles, and the baroque gardens of Italy always had music. It’s often been a place where you can mingle music with pleasure. I do approach gardens in the same way that I approach music as a conductor. The pandemic also led many concert audiences to rediscover gardens as a venue for music. There are beautiful concerts in Grange Park in England and at Caramoor.

The New York Times once called you “more French than the French.” Do you feel more French or American?

I’ve lived here in France for 52 years now, so it’s a mix of both. I feel like I’m in the middle of the Atlantic. I think in French now, but obviously I need both countries. They are both very important for me.

Which American qualities have your retained?

I think it has to do with energy, my work ethic. I’m still amazed at the kind of extraordinary energy that’s generated in America, and particularly in New York City. And the idea of a team spirit, the American aspect of setting up an ensemble, the American sense of community.

And what do you miss about America?

I miss the places I know. I would be very sad if I couldn’t come to New York every year. But I still teach at Juilliard, so that’s a good excuse to visit, and I go back at least three times a year. So I love New York and Boston, but also the American West with all the great national parks, like Bryce Canyon in Utah. It’s just one of the most wonderful parts of the world.

The festival Dans les Jardins de William Christie, in the Vendée département. © Jay Qin

Do you think the U.S. could emulate the French model of strong public support for the arts?

We get subsidies from the French government every year. France will not let go of its culture, its music, its dancers. The French have a very strong idea about the value of culture. But in America, the political climate is certainly not conducive to such efforts for the culture I believe in. Can you imagine a conservative government in America supporting that? I’d be whistling “Dixie.” So thank goodness for New York and a few other cities, and for all the universities and university towns! These places stand out like beacons of cultural hope across America.

When it comes to other art forms, do you also prefer the baroque in painting and architecture?

No, I’m not really confined to it. I appreciate contemporary stagings of opera. To give a sense of my taste, I was just in Madrid and went with a marvelous artist to the Prado, and one day, we honed in on Titian, since they have one of the best Titian collections in the world. The next day we returned to look at the Fra Angelicos, and then we concentrated on early Goya. My taste is eclectic.

What about pop music today, do you listen to any of it?

Oh, lots of it. I like rap, especially sung rap, because of its masterful control of language. And I’ve always been interested in great performers, Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa. In the 1960s, I went to Tanglewood in Massachusetts to see Janis Joplin. I’ve always liked French chansons. In fact, at a concert we had last night, we did Rameau, Offenbach, some Charpentier, and then we ended with Michel Legrand.

What can we expect at your concerts at Carnegie Hall on April 25 and 26?

I will play the harpsichord on the first night, with a brilliant French violinist, Théotime Langlois de Swarte, and we’re doing Handel, Corelli, and lesser known works by Leclair and Senaillé. [The pair will also give a performance at FIAF the day before, on April 24.] The second night, I’m doing an all-Charpentier program with Les Arts Florissants, with a repertoire that I think no one has ever performed in New York. I hope they will receive messages of beauty.

You clearly need to come here more often – both nights are sold out!

That’s good to hear, because the taste for this repertoire used to be quite limited. But now, in large part due to Juilliard’s Historical Performance program, which is one of the best in the world, that has changed this entirely. There was always an early music scene in New York, but it was small and very conservative in its choices of repertoire. Now that has changed, so it’s a very exciting time.

Interview published in the April 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.