The harpsichordist and ensemble leader William Christie could quite easily be mistaken for a patrician, 1960s-era CIA operative out of Norman Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost. Yesterday morning, he was wearing a fitted black suit, blue shirt, beige pocket square, and polka dot socks, and spoke in aristocratic American English that clearly recalled his days studying at Harvard and Yale. We went to the bar of Berlin’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, where he was staying, and looked for a table. Saxophone Muzak sleazed in the background. “It’s not annoying, but destroying,” he said. We went back to the lobby. At one point towards the end of the interview, I asked him if he still had time for one last question. He answered, “The minute my team arrives I’ll drop you like a hot potato.”
VAN: You are performing Claudio Monteverdi’s “Selva Morale” in Berlin on December 13. You also recorded the work in 1987 with your ensemble, Les Arts Florissants. What has changed in the way you play Monteverdi since then?
We came to the conclusion that we were on the right road, and essentially we kept going on that road. But now we’re at the wheel of a newer automobile and the roads are better, so the message gets delivered quicker. I think the audience is going to feel this extraordinary energy and emotion, a beguiling sense of rhythm, a strong message, and music that wants to please.
This is baroque art, which wants to convince. Baroque music was probably one of the strongest forms of propaganda at the time. During the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic [church] needed to spread its message to everybody. And it was immensely successful.
Claudio Monteverdi, “Selva Morale e spirituale,” XVI. Confitebor terzo alla francese; William Christie (Conductor), Les Arts Florissants
What specifically has gotten easier?
For lute players, violone players, harpists, the way those instruments were played 30 or 40 years ago was pretty much the Dark Ages. Today, of course, there are some fantastic players. We now view this music not as 300 years old but as contemporary.
It makes the road easier that the generation today has grown up with this music, be it on continuo or obbligato instruments. When I was singing, playing, and conducting Monteverdi, back at Harvard…the road was rocky. Iva Dee Hiatt conducted the “Vespers”—there were good things, but there were also things that now would be totally unacceptable. You had singers who were used to singing Mozart in the best case, or fresh from singing Stephen Sondheim in the worst case.
The Monteverdi 450 celebrations are this year, and he’s being played a lot right now. What do people still get wrong in the way they interpret him?
I think we are still bothered by role playing in early music. [Sighs.] Monteverdi is, at its best, spontaneous, energetic, direct, fresh. How does one arrive at that? It’s not with a conductor who is beating time; who doesn’t try to, or can’t, differentiate between Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” or Berlioz’s “L’enfance du Christ” and Monteverdi, Cavalli, or Rossi. Can this music really survive when you have a conductor straitjacketing the continuo team and relying on large orchestral and choral forces? That deadens all the things that I find so important.
Monteverdi’s lyric pieces, “Orfeo,” “Il ritorno d’Ulisse,” “Poppea,” are performed a great deal: There’s not an opera house that can hold its head up proudly that doesn’t at least think about doing Monteverdi. And there are a surprising number of productions where you’ve got someone conducting—using a technique that might be better for Shostakovich or Britten. This is totally wrong.
Essentially these are people who can’t play instruments. Do I believe that I have to play as a conductor? Very much so. I watched a colleague on YouTube the other day conducting Monteverdi who was sitting on a stool—being as he can’t play anything—snapping his fingers and giving orders to two continuo groups.
I guess you’re not going to tell me who you were watching…
…of course I’m not. But the point is: It’s as ludicrous as a lieder recital with a singer and a pianist, and all of a sudden the conductor appears, and he conducts them! It’s that kind of stupidity. I come back to words like spontaneity, energy, freshness—these can only, only, only be achieved when you have a direct rapport.
You know, I was highly offended when I was growing up and a conductor would tell me, “I’ll write the continuo out for you.” But I still have colleagues who do exactly that. The control freaks, or those who simply don’t know how to do anything else besides flap their arms around.
I’ve conducted the Berlin Philharmonic a number of times. They’re intelligent and inquisitive. But I can remember the moments when, at Christmas time, they’d cart out this enormous Neupert harpsichord. Karajan would conduct the “Christmas Oratorio.” And he was fabulous when he conducted romantic or 20th-century music, but he wasn’t fabulous at all when he was just pounding on that idiotic instrument. We’ve come a long way.
Jean-Philippe Rameau, “In Convertendo Dominus”; William Christie (Conductor), Les Arts Florissants
Do early music performers still have things that they can improve on?
If you’ve got a winning horse or a product which is admired—and I think we can say that early music has been a selling commodity for a number of years—you are going to get people jumping on the bandwagon. I think it should be pointed out: if you’re dealing with the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, you’ve got to be a virtuoso. Performers were put on pedestals and music writing became immensely difficult. That’s to say there’s a simplicity in early music which allows people with not an awful lot of talent to get very far.
Is this act getting itself together? I think so. But it’s still present. We do have the kind of person who can hammer out chaconnes over an insistent basso ostinato in the manner of a cheap pop star.
In your opinion, which baroque composers haven’t been explored enough?
The Italian School. Obviously. There was so much written between 1600 and 1800 in Italy—it’s staggering. There has been a lot of work done, thanks in large part to American musicology, but that doesn’t mean this stuff is being aired.
Also, no one’s done all the Rameau or all the Charpentier. And there’s a fellow whom I’m interested in right now; it’s still pretty superficial, because I don’t have time, but I love his music, and I don’t think we’re dealing with it properly. His name is Dietrich Buxtehude.
Ton Koopman has done a lot of work on Buxtehude.
Well, a lot of people have. I just don’t think the message is the message that I’m hearing, and that’s important.
It’s a question of interpretation, rather than needing to know more about his life.
Totally. Lives really aren’t that important. You get in with the first hand material, the work itself.
Articles like this, straight to your inbox
I went to school for music in Basel, where the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a specialized college for early music, is based. I noticed there seemed to be a disproportionate number of gay people studying there. From one gay man to another: Why do you think gay people are particularly interested in early music?
What do we have in our makeup? Why do people, when they try to define us, use adjectives like refined and sensitive? Could the greats who were gay, like Michelangelo or Leonard, have been as great if they had a different orientation?
That’s the question.
It’s the answer as well.
But I would say there are no more [gay people] in my ensemble than there might be in mainstream music. I’ve never recruited gays. I don’t have to. I’m not a predator. That’s a very important thing to say. We live in a world where people who have control over others—who are directors or bosses—have exploited [their positions] for years. Especially in the heterosexual world.
All I think one should say is that one has to have a sense of subtlety and sensitivity as a musician. Sensitivity is a very important word in my vocabulary, because when I was growing up I was sensitive to everything: people, things that I looked at, things that I heard. And I knew, even then, that I was more sensitive than perhaps a few of my neighbors or colleagues. But you’ve been through that too.
Was it ever too much?
Of course. I tried to wean myself out of it.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier, “O Adonai et dux domus Israel“ from “Un Oratorio de Noël”; William Christie (Conductor), Les Arts Florissants
Can you describe what that was like?
Your press representative told me that you’re basically always on tour. Is that true? You’re grinning.
I’m only grinning because I’m counting my days off. There’s some truth in that, yeah.
Do you ever think about doing less?
Yes, but when I do I’m unhappy. I love music. I do have other passions, obviously. Gardening. People.
What do you mean when you say “people”?
I’ve had a very rich life emotionally with people. But one of the great problems of being a musician, and especially the kind of peripatetic musician that I am, is trying to keep relations going. It’s difficult. Do you have a partner?
Yes, I’m married.
Are you good to him? But you don’t move around.
We live in Berlin together.
But can you imagine if one or both of you are constantly on the road? It makes it hard.
Do you have a partner?
How long have you guys been together?
It’s complicated. We met about 20 years ago, and then after a while it didn’t work, so both of us went our separate ways. And I had a very nice string of lovers and people whom I still see. And then, six years ago, the man I was with 20 years ago and I ran into each other on the street in Paris. We picked up where we had left off, which is a rather nice story. ¶