Long a leading figure in the early music performance movement, William Christie has been especially influential in restoring opera and French music to their rightful places in the Baroque repertory. He is the harpsichordist and leader of the ensemble Les Arts Florissants.
Christie was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1944, and studied piano and organ as a young man. He attended Harvard, graduating with an art history degree and switching to music only for graduate study at the Yale School of Music. His teacher there was the pioneering harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, best known for his rediscovery and thorough exploration of the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Christie moved to France in 1971; eventually he not only became a French citizen, but also was named a member of the Legion of Honor. Many early music performers have done stints in the contemporary-music world (and vice-versa); between 1971 and 1975, as a member of the Five Centuries Ensemble, Christie participated in premieres of work by such notables as Luciano Berio and Morton Feldman. Between 1976 and 1980, he played keyboards for the early music group Concerto Vocale, led by René Jacobs. In 1979, Christie founded Les Arts Florissants, an ensemble devoted to French, English, and Italian music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The group has done much to revive the difficult genre of French Baroque opera, with its arcane declamatory style. Working with leading stage designers and choreographers, Christie has had special success with the operas of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau, rightful mainstays of the operatic repertory in their own times, but almost forgotten since then. Since 1994, Christie and Les Arts Florissants have recorded for the major French label Erato, and the contract was renewed in 1999. That year saw the release of the Les Arts Florissants recording of Monteverdi's magnificent Vespro della Beata Vergine (the Vespers of 1610). The group has also recorded for Harmonia Mundi, and it has continued to record for both labels through the late 2010s. Christie's catalog of recordings is probably unmatched in size by any other conductor in the historical performance field, comprising at least 115 albums. That accomplishment was made all the more impressive by the sheer mastery of unknown repertory it entailed on Christie's part: while some of his recordings with Les Arts Florissants, including their 2017 reading of Bach's Mass in B minor, BWV 232, have featured common repertory items, a large majority have involved previously unrecorded French operas and choral works for which Christie had no established tradition to draw on. Another facet of Christie's accomplishment has been his role in training younger musicians, first as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire from 1982 to 1995, and then at the helm of his own Les Jardins des Voix training program; many of its young singers were featured on his recordings.