Confessions of a Francophile

It's now 20 years since conductor William Christie set up his award-winning period-instrument group Les Arts Florissants. So what draws an American to explore the French Baroque? By Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture

There is a long tradition of American artists settling in France, but the work they produce there is generally considered part of American, not French culture. It's a little different with the conductor William Christie, who has lived in France since 1971 and has since taken up French citizenship. In 1979 he founded the vocal and instrumental ensemble Les Arts Florissants. In the intervening years Christie has devoted himself wholeheartedly, though not exclusively, to French Baroque repertoire, a devotion acknowledged in 1993 with his appointment as Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. Next week, as part of the 20th-birthday season of Les Arts Florissants, he continues his crusade on behalf of the music of his adopted country with a London performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully's comédie-ballet, Le bourgeois gentilhomme.

There is a long tradition of American artists settling in France, but the work they produce there is generally considered part of American, not French culture. It's a little different with the conductor William Christie, who has lived in France since 1971 and has since taken up French citizenship. In 1979 he founded the vocal and instrumental ensemble Les Arts Florissants. In the intervening years Christie has devoted himself wholeheartedly, though not exclusively, to French Baroque repertoire, a devotion acknowledged in 1993 with his appointment as Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. Next week, as part of the 20th-birthday season of Les Arts Florissants, he continues his crusade on behalf of the music of his adopted country with a London performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully's comédie-ballet, Le bourgeois gentilhomme.

When I spoke to Christie earlier this week, he reminisced fondly about his life-long love affair with French music: "I came across French Baroque music long before I went to study at Yale. My first exposure came through Couperin's work, the harpsichord music and Les Leçons de ténÿbres, which I heard on record when I was 12- or 13-years-old. I was conscious that this music was different. Then at Yale in the 1960s I heard more, though there wasn't an awful lot going on with French music back then. There had been some pioneering recordings, of course, like Anthony Lewis's 1965 recording of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie with Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk and Bob Tear. That was, I suppose, the most important for me.

"I've always been an unabashed Francophile, and although I wasn't aware of it at the time, it was inevitable that I would come to Europe. My parents travelled a great deal, and in a sense they knew Europe better than they knew a lot of places in the United States. I wasn't sure where I'd end up living, but since I spoke French better than I spoke German or Italian, Paris seemed the logical choice."

Although the period-instrument movement was fast gathering momentum, Christie reminds me that it was not all exclusively European phenomenon: "In Boston and elsewhere on the East Coast there was a lot of activity in the field of early instruments. In the late-1960s, the harpsichord centre of the world was probably Boston, and in the mid-1960s it was Frank Hubbard from Boston who started the collection of harpsichords at the Paris Conservatoire. In terms of French musical style, some of the most important musicological work has come from American scholars. The French are flattered that non-French can pick up on their culture, and they're immensely proud of their musical patrimony, but they admit that certain aspects of it were pretty neglected in France itself."

When Christie first arrived in Europe, he played keyboards with the Five Centuries Ensemble, which played both early and contemporary music. Like many performers, Christie was excited by the experimentation required to play old music in what he calls a "historically informed" way. In that sense, playing old and new music together was a logical move. "Both gave a sense of freedom, especially in terms of techniques and the standardised conservatory mentality. There was a sense of excitement in these two very different repertoires, a realisation that one had essentially to invent things, seek out new sounds. I still perform some contemporary music, but it's rare, though in November I'm conducting a motet that Betsy Jolas has written for Les Arts Florissants."

In this country, contemporary composers as diverse as John Tavener, George Benjamin and Elvis Costello have written for the antique timbres of period instruments. In France, though, it's a far less common phenomenon, and Christie is proud of once again uniting ancient and modern. He takes it as a sign of confidence among period-instrument performers.

"The movement has become less self-conscious. The public accepts that it's here to stay and, sometimes happily, sometimes less happily, it lives alongside modern players and modern ensembles. We still have detractors who maintain that it's all silliness and nonsense, but I don't think anyone can deny the importance of what we've done, or its influence on modern schools of playing. You don't play Mozart the way you played Mozart 35 years ago, you don't pedal Beethoven's piano music the way you did 35 years ago."

Historically informed Christie's performances may be, but they are not dogmatic re-creations. In bringing Baroque operas to the stage he has worked with such defiantly modern directors as Peter Sellars, Robert Carsen and Adrian Noble, while next week's performance of Le bourgeois gentilhomme will benefit from a mise-en-espace by choreographer Ana Yepes. It will not, however, be a fully-staged presentation of the whole comédie-ballets, for which Lully provided incidental music to Moliÿre's play. Even for a 20th-birthday celebration, the cost of staging the complete work is prohibitive, so its translator Jeremy Sams has provided a witty linking narrative drawing on but also replacing Moliÿre's original text.

Cost restraints notwithstanding, Christie is convinced of the work's viability: "I've done several of the comédies-ballets that Lully wrote with Moliÿre, and they work brilliantly - as well, in fact, as Purcell's semi-operas.

"They're reminiscent of The Fairy Queen and King Arthur, where you have a fully fledged stage play and witty incidental music. Lully's operas have rather rare moments of comedy, but Le bourgeois gentilhomme is sheer, unabashed comedy - satire if you will. The idea is to present the music rather than the play with the music, but Jeremy Sams has provided a narration which is lively, and very clever."

It may not be the full Baroque monty, but with performances of Lully a rarity in Britain, it will be an occasion to remember. Even after 20 years of burrowing deep into the Baroque, Christie remains excited about discoveries still to be made. "Just last week, for example, we devoted the weekend to the music of Desmarets, an early 18th-century composer who wrote some splendid music. So yes, there are still a lot of beautiful things to be brought back to life."

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants perform 'Le bourgeois gentilhomme' on 2 Nov at the Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171-638 8991)

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