Born on December 19, 1944, in Buffalo, NY; son of William Lincoln Christie and Ida Jones (a choir director). Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1966; Yale University, M. Mus., 1970; further study of harpsichord in France with Kenneth Gilbert and David Fuller. Addresses: Office--Les Arts Florissants, 2 Rue de Saint-Petersbourg, 75008 Paris, France.
Tourists from around the world make pilgrimages each year to visit Versailles and the other sumptuous palaces of France, to experience, if only for a few hours, the lifestyle of monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, and his associates and successors. Visitors proceed to the Louvre in Paris to see the art that has hung on the walls of French aristocratic homes, but the music that would have been heard at the French court in the 1600s and 1700s was until recently much harder to find. That has changed, due largely to the work of American-born conductor William Christie and the ensemble he founded, Les Arts Florissants. Richly honored in his adopted country, Christie has rediscovered an important chapter in French musical history. The first American professor at the Paris Conservatory, Christie has been given the responsibility, quipped music historian Richard Taruskin in a New Republic essay, of "teaching the French to be French."
The man who gave a shot in the arm to the French operatic scene was born on December 19, 1944, in Buffalo, New York. When he was young, the music of Louis XIV's time (known as the Baroque era) was little known, even in New York. But Christie, as he explained to Opera News writer Patrick Giles, grew up in "a family where music was considered very important. I was able to hear old music, to know what old music was all about at a very early age." Christie's mother, a choir director, gave him music lessons, and a grandmother gave him a recording of organ music by French Baroque composer François Couperin. "That blew my mind---it was one of the most extraordinary things I'd ever heard in my life," he told Giles. "Lights flashed, bells clanged, and I was in a different state."
Christie studied piano and organ, and he also sought out lessons on the harpsichord, the keyboard instrument that was the piano's direct ancestor. At Harvard University he majored in art history but also took music classes. After graduating from Harvard in 1966, Christie went on for a master's degree at Yale, studying harpsichord with Ralph Kirkpatrick, one of the pioneers in repopularizing the instrument. He finished his degree in 1970 and moved to France the following year to continue studying harpsichord with the Quebec-to-France transplant Kenneth Gilbert.
From 1971 to 1976 Christie performed with the Five Centuries Ensemble, a group that specialized in classical music ranging from its early eras to the present day. By the late 1970s, numerous ensembles in France, England, and the United States had begun to explore the idea of performing what is known as early music---music dating from before the mainstream symphonic and operatic era of the late 1700s and 1800s---on instruments similar to those that would have been used at the music's first performance. In 1976 Christie joined one of the most important of these "period-instrument" or "historical-performance" ensembles, the Concerto Vocale led by director René Jacobs, as a keyboardist. He remained with Concerto Vocale until 1981.
In 1979 Christie formed a similar ensemble of his own, naming it Les Arts Florissants ("The Flourishing Arts") after a composition by French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The group focused on French Baroque opera but also performed Italian and English works. Christie went beyond just using original instruments for his performances, scouring libraries for other clues as to how works of the time were played and staged. He realized that French music as well as drama was governed by elaborate rules regarding diction and poetic rhythm, and he demanded that singers perform entire operas in spoken words before they ever sang a note.
The results were dramatic. Les Arts Florissants performed the work for which they were named at the palace of Versailles itself in 1982, and other Christie performances of the early 1980s were well received, not only by specialists but by ordinary French operagoers as well. Les Arts Florissants made over 40 recordings for the large European classical labels Harmonia Mundi and Erato, beginning with a much-praised version of Charpentier's Medée, and creating a market for music that until then had been almost unknown. Two stage productions really put Christie on the cultural radar screen in France: in 1985 he mounted Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Hippolyte et Aricie at one of France's top opera houses, the Opéra-Comique, and two years later he staged Atys, a sumptuous work by Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to Louis XIV.
From 1982 until 1995, Christie was on the faculty at the Paris Conservatoire, the seat of education in the French musical tradition. His American nationality was unusual, but, Erato label president Didier Durand-Bancel told Bradley Bambarger of Billboard, "Bill knows more about French culture than 99.9% of the native French." Les Arts Florissants made several appearances in the United States, mounting Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989. Among other awards, he was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1993. Two years later he became a French citizen, also retaining his American citizenship.
Christie's classes at the conservatory gave him a steady stream of new performers schooled in his ideas, and Les Arts Florissants became more and more successful. He was known as an exacting leader who demanded perfection down to the last detail. If his performers seemed to blend together into a single unit, he was quoted as saying by Taruskin, "This is because the need for a sense of homogeneity has been drummed into them." Performers approached auditions with Christie nervously. "There are so many stories about him," soprano Jane Tankersley told Adam Wasserman of Opera News. "I think that he has a responsibility to produce the best-quality product that he possibly can, and he'll always go about whatever it is that he has to do to get that."
Yet working with Christie involved new freedom as well as discipline. Some of the top singers in the operatic world came to Paris to work with Christie, and they found that he emphasized the importance of improvisation in Baroque vocal music---something absent from later operatic styles. American opera superstar Renée Fleming appeared in a 1999 Christie production of Handel's Alcina. "Renée Fleming will not be the same woman ever again, because she's now been involved, herself, in the creative process," Christie told Giles. "And what does the public want? They want exhilarating spontaneity, freshness---'My God, I'll bet she's just done that off the top of her head!' Well, she has."
The early 2000s saw Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the midst of a new five-year contract with Erato. In 2004 they toured the United States, giving concerts of works by Charpentier, returning to the composer whose works had stimulated their first performances and recordings. Having established Le Jardin des Voix (The Garden of Voices), an academy of his own for training young singers, Christie viewed the declining state of arts education in the United States with alarm, telling Giles that "if we don't continue to teach the arts to everyone, we will become a race of barbarians." He looked back on his own still-vigorous career with satisfaction, telling Giles that "what's happened has taken me completely by surprise. "But I am very, very happy about it." He had a right to be satisfied---few other individuals have enlarged the repertoire of opera to the extent that he has.
by James M. Manheim
William Christie's Career
Moved to France, 1971; performed with Five Centuries Ensemble, 1971-75; performed on keyboard instruments with Concerto Vocale, 1975-81; founder and director, Les Arts Florissants, 1979--; made over 40 recordings, mostly for Harmonia Mundi and Erato labels; established Le Jardin des Voix vocal academy, 2002.
William Christie's Awards
Named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1985; named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France), 1993; named Officer of the Legion of Honor (France), 2003; numerous international prizes for recordings with Les Arts Florissants.
- Selected discography
- (Marc-Antoine Charpentier) Medée (Medea), Erato.
- (Charpentier) La Déscente d'Orphée aux Enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into Hell), Erato.
- (On organ; François Couperin) Leçions de Tenèbres (Tenebrae Lesson), Erato.
- (Jean-Baptiste Lully) Atys Harmonia Mundi.
- (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Erato.
- (Mozart) Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Erato.
- Les Plaisirs de Versailles (The Pleasures of Versailles), Erato.
- (Henry Purcell) Dido and Aeneas Erato.
- (Purcell) The Fairy Queen Harmonia Mundi.
- (Jean-Philippe Rameau) Castor et Pollux Harmonia Mundi.
- (Rameau) Hippolyte et Aricie Erato.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
- Billboard, March 27, 1999, p. 18.
- New Republic, December 13, 1993, p. 31.
- Opera News, May 1994, p. 24; October 1999, p. 42; August 2002, p. 66; February 2004, p. 34; July 2004, p. 36.
- "William Christie," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 17, 2005).