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Le Carnet de France: Baroque music in a refined country estate

By Martine P. Dulles



Promenades musicales in the Gardens. W. Christie playing the harpsichord. Photo copyright GazeauJ Les Arts Florissants


As you know, the objective of Le Carnet de France is to inform you of the latest developments in the French cultural world with, obviously, an emphasis on subjects of interest to you, readers, and preferably with a Franco-American flair.


This month, I am delighted to write about a very-much-admired American gentleman who has been in France for the last 50 years.


His passion for music, gardening and heritage has enhanced the French culture tremendously. His name is William Lincoln Christie. He graduated from Harvard College, where he studied art history, and then he went to Yale to study music. He is a renowned harpsichord player.


In 1970, he came to France and stayed!


William Christie and Paul Agnew. Photo copyright Gazeau J Les Arts Florissants.


Nine years later, he created Les Arts Florissants, a musical ensemble named after an opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed in 1685. In France, you cannot dissociate Les Arts Florissants and Baroque music anymore. It is thanks to William Christie that Baroque music has been revived and is so appreciated today. Les Arts Florissants performs works by Bach, Charpentier, Handel, Haydn, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and many more composers.


Since 2015, Les Arts Florissants is in residence at the Philharmonie de Paris, the new concert hall designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and inaugurated that year. It is located within the Parc of the Cité de la Musique at La Villette, on the northeastern edge of Paris. Les Arts Florissants also perform whole over Europe, the United States (Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music), South America, Asia and Australia.


Early on, while performing all over France, William Christie discovered the Vendée, a department in Le Pays de la Loire, south of Nantes, where he decided to find a home. In 1985, he purchased an abandoned 16th-century building in the small village of Thiré, which needed lots of restoration. It included a large piece of land, and his other aim was to make a beautiful garden.


The main building, called “Le Bâtiment,” features typical Vendean attributes. Christie’s restoration is so spectacular that it is registered among the Monuments historiques as a regional heritage site.


Opéra on the Miroir d’Eau. Photo copyright Jay-Qin Les Arts Florissants.


A garden? Well, within the large space you do not have one garden but several, and as in his music, William Christie’s inspirations were from France, England and Italy — and there is also an American corner. We were told that Mr. Christie loves cooking, so he does not have to go far to fetch delicious produce from his wonderful vegetable garden as well as his fruit orchard.


Since 2012, Les Arts Florissants puts on the Festival des Jardins during the last week in August. It lasts a week, and if you like Baroque music and beautiful gardens, it is a must. In the morning, you are invited to discover the gardens with a tour guide, or you can attend a dance or a singing class. During the afternoon, you can meander throughout the gardens for the Promenades musicales. These are 20-minute performances: solos, singers, musicians, dancers or short-story tellers. In the evening, an opera is performed on the Miroir d’eau, an artificial pond created by the host, or you can attend a string quartet concert or a recital in the magnificent Gothic church Saint Pierre de Thiré, lit with candles and filled with beautiful bouquets of flowers. After those performances, before retiring, you may attend a half-hour recital of sacred music in the church for meditation (no talking, no applause). This is a beautiful and peaceful moment to end the day.


Opéra on the Miroir d’Eau. Photo copyright Jay-Qin Les Arts Florissants.


William Christie created Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants’ international academy for young singers, in 2002 and then started a collaboration with the Juilliard School in New York in 2007. Every year, eight to ten students are selected to come and perform in Thiré with professional musicians. Thanks to William Christie and his musical co-director, Paul Agnew, a renowned singer and conductor from England, many gifted young musicians and singers have had their international career launched.


Under the direction of Paul Agnew, during the Festival du Printemps, one weekend in April, short concerts of sacred music are performed in different churches in and around Thiré. In the village a cultural center named Le Quartier des Artistes has been created. It is a residence where young musicians as well as landscape designers can reside and enhance their talents. Each year a prize is also awarded to the best landscape designer of the jardin ephémère (temporary garden)


France has recognized the contribution of William L. Christie with his election to the very prestigious Académie Française in 2008. He is a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.


Numerous recordings are available, and if you wish to have more information, there is a foundation: American Friends of Les Arts Florissants William Christie: arts-florissants.com/American-friends.


Next summer’s Festival des Jardins in Thiré should be held from August 20 to 28, 2022.




Martine P. Dulles lives in France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston for many years. She now organizes bespoke tours in France and is a translator for cultural material. You can reach her at mpd@dullesdeleu.com.



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