William Christie master classes tend to be well attended and eagerly anticipated. This is partly because of his reputation as founder of the superb baroque orchestra Les Arts Florissants, which he founded in 1979. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of French baroque music and an ability as a native English-speaker to speak eloquently about it. Humans being what they are, though, it’s also fair to say that it’s partly because Christie has a reputation for not mincing words, meaning it’s possible in such a master class to be witness to drama of a certain sort—musicians who come unprepared might be subject to a withering critique before a public audience.
The first Christie performance I saw—Charpentier’s Medée at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1994—was a revelation, not just because of the intensity of Lorraine Hunt’s performance in the title role but because the sounds coming out of the orchestra pit seemed so urgent, raw, and tightly rhythmic. It seemed amazing at the time that music hundreds of years old managed to sound completely modern. Christie’s long, long fingers and intense gaze seemed to threaten physical punishment if the musicians of the orchestra didn’t do exactly as he indicated. At that time Charpentier’s music, and most music of the French baroque, was little known and played in the United States. It has become better known since then, but the special challenges of baroque music—such as manuscripts that need to be deciphered and instruments like the woody-sounding oboe and whispery-sounding flute that need to be coaxed into beauty and are sometimes prone to squeaking or not sounding at all—are not substantially different today than they were fifteen years ago.
In a free two-hour master class at Juilliard’s Paul Hall on March 31, Christie worked with musicians from the school’s brand-new early-music performance program, whose inaugural class is now nearing the end of its first academic year. Four chamber groupings played works by Couperin, Telemann, Hotteterre, and Purcell. None of them looked excessively nervous, perhaps because they’d already been working for the previous two days with Christie. For the first piece, Couperin’s Concert royal No. 7 in G minor for violin and harpsichord—a piece of “extraordinary melancholy,” as Christie put it—it took a few moments to get used to the smaller sound coming from Liv Heym’s violin. The phrasing was all there, but it all takes place within that narrower baroque sphere, so very unlike what modern ears are used to hearing.
Christie asked Heym about the piece’s proliferation of ornaments—trills, appoggiaturas, and such—commenting that “no one would want to listen to French music again” without them. “Don’t play what’s on the page,” he told her. “It will be boring if you do—without a trill, it would be like a bad Corelli melody. With it, it becomes unmistakably Gallic. So flesh it out. Understand that it’s a document that wants to be completed.” At one point there was a discussion of inégale, the baroque practice of giving two notes of the same rhythmic value uneven emphasis (sort of like in jazz). One of the most insightful remarks was the comment that, for the violin part (or any instrumental melody line), it should be thought of as a vocal aria—that the starting point for all late-seventeenth-century French music is the voice, and that vocal art provides the prototype for the instrumental line. He explained that adding a trill “excites a note,” adds dissonance, and that this type of dissonance created by a trill almost always signals a weighted syllable. “You must imitate the voice. This is a song without words—before Mendelssohn came up with the idea,” Christie quipped.
Christie told a story about a recent discovery he made that Domenico Scarlatti had made two trips to Paris, and the possibility that this is the basis for the numerous hand-crossings in his keyboard sonatas. He called several of the performers—especially wind players—courageous for getting beautiful performances out of “distressingly primitive-looking” instruments. “I am a fervent believer in these instruments,” he said, and he explained that the music was written with these instruments in mind and “have an identity with the music itself.” He commented that someone like Pierre Boulez would consider what he (Christie) does “almost bordering on kitsch.”
The most remarkable aspect of the master class came at the end, when Christie seemed less like a stern taskmaster and more like a father proudly presiding over his children. Christie noted that most preconceived notions of a master class center on the “master” impressing the crowd with what he can do to “fix” the performances. He added that such classes are really an opportunity for the audience to learn more about the style, and how difficult it can be, for performers used to our modern violins, flutes, oboes, and such. In the end, there was not much “fixing” other than a few tiny things such as the suggestion that the harpsichord be played with the short stick to muffle the sound, so the quieter wind and string melody instruments could be better heard.
Christie even commented, “You do know that Americans are the best at French studies, though I couldn’t say that in France!” (Christie, a native of Buffalo, New York, has been a permanent resident of France since 1971, and a citizen since 1995.) It is possible that this is because Christie, now in his sixties, has mellowed over the years. But it’s also a sign of the times that the absence of the kind of uninformed playing and cringe-worthy sounds some of us remember from the 1970s are partly a reflection of Christie’s own influence.
Image: Top: Violinists Beth Wenstrom and Liv Heym, harpsichord player Aya Hamada, cellist Beiliang Zhu. Photo by Richard Termine. Bottom: William Christie by Richard Termine.