Back to the future for baroque specialist
Harpsichordist, conductor, musicologist and teacher William Christie was born in Buffalo and educated at Harvard and Yale. Since 1971 he has lived in France where, eight years later, he founded Les Arts Florissants, one of the world's greatest interpreters of Baroque music.
The following interview took place on Friday 6 March 2015 at the University of WA School of Music, just before Christie was due to present, together with members of Les Arts Florissants and Le Jardin des Voix, the lecture-recital The Rhetoric of Passion – Eloquence in the Golden Age of Italian Music as a guest of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions, the Perth International Arts Festival, and the School of Music at The University of Western Australia.
I know it’s always a difficult question to answer, but do you have a favourite composer?
It’s not a difficult question to answer at all, because I cheat and say the composer whose music I’m working on right at that moment. But if you ask me what composer’s music I’d like to take with me to a desert island, that’s more difficult. Who is my favourite composer now? Haydn, because I’m working on his music. Whose music would I like to take to a desert island with me? Purcell, Monteverdi, Mozart: these are the people I fall back on all the time. They would help me get through the solitude better than Shostakovich, say.
Since the historical performance movement started around the middle of last century, those ideas of trying to rediscover the methods and instruments musicians used to perform music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods and apply them to contemporary performances have moved both backwards to the medieval period and forwards to the classical and even romantic periods. Is that something you subscribe to?
I obviously believe in it. It’s not fool-proof, but there’s a great deal of enjoyment and a great deal to be learned if you get closer to what a composer might have known at the time he was writing. But there’s a caveat. I would not what to hear pianists play in the same way Brahms played, for example. I’ve heard Brahms recordings and they’re pretty foul. So there, you have to be careful.
But performing conventions, yes, you can understand things about tempo and how one fingers a piano piece in terms of articulation. When my colleagues graduate from singing or playing or conducting Bach or Handel or Rameau or Monteverdi and get into early 19th century music, I think that’s a good thing. Whether it’s Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, even Berlioz, the idea of intellectual curiosity is very important.
Let’s face it: that’s something which a lot of our standard modern conservatory trained musicians don’t do. A lot of them are brain-dead. And a lot of conductors who pride themselves on stick technique don’t have a single idea in their head. Putting things into question belongs in my camp. Being curious intellectually belongs in my camp. I’m not saying that anybody who’s not in the early music or historically informed area is less intelligent or less intellectually inclined. But there are a higher percentage of them in that area.
As a student, I remember once asking the chorus master why we had to do such-and-such in this Mozart (vocal) quartet. “Well it’s always been done that way,” was the answer. “Yes, but what’s the sense behind that,” I asked. “It’s just tradition,” he replied. Now, I think that dusting off Beethoven, using instruments and pedal techniques of the time… well, we’ve cleaned up a lot and the fact is musicians playing modern instruments are playing differently because of the early music movement.
But problems still remain. I remember hearing (a famous conductor and orchestra) only a few years ago playing Mozart and it was like Jurassic Park. Because it was the old-fashioned Mozart. That performance then becomes a period piece, that’s old music that takes us back to the 50s. And if it does that, it could well take us back to the 30s. And I’m not quite sure that was the best period for Mozart.
How important is it to take into account the cultural context of a particular piece of music? And do you try to impart some sense of broad cultural knowledge to younger musicians?
30 years ago people making early music were highly educated. It was as if you simply had to have a university degree. You still find among certain orchestras and ensembles a highly cultivated individual. That’s changing. Are we finding the great unwashed (laughs) among harpsichordists? Yes. Is there something wrong with that? No. Because we can find people with immense technical ability and intellectual capability anywhere. Sometimes they’re present in the same individual, sometimes there’s less of one and more of another.
But In my orchestra now, an aging orchestra – although we are replenishing ourselves with junior members and all that – yes, I have a highly sophisticated, highly cultivated group of individuals. Do I like that? I’d be foolish to say no. And do I try to impart to youngsters the importance of being a polymath, of being a man or woman of culture? Yes. Myself, I have a strong visual sense and I like to use explanations and examples drawn from different artforms. I started out as an art historian and I find it very useful for being able to describe Baroque Rome not only in musical terms but also in visual terms. It also makes me very happy when I’m on tour and I find myself in a museum or gallery with time to spare.
How important is it to move an audience?
It’s immensely important, having that communion between the stage or pit and the audience. I tell all my musicians: sing or play to convince. And actually that’s even more important than to touch. To convince someone that what you’re doing has value – that’s very important. I remember hearing a famous harpsichordist saying, “I don’t care about the public. They can get what they want. They’re no concern to me.” I asked what they were playing for. “I’m playing for Bach. I’m playing for myself.” That’s terrible. If I don’t feel I can communicate intelligence or feeling, I’m not interested, and having someone say, “you changed my life” or “you touched me very deeply” or there was a moment of grace: these are my rewards.