Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fauré the Impressionist?

I found myself hedging this morning while preparing my Examiner.com piece on last night's Left Coast Chamber Ensemble performance. The hedge had nothing to do with any of the performances. Rather, it had to do with some of the opening remarks by Artistic Director and violinist Anna Presler:

Presler invoked the impressionist movement in painting, with its power to suggest objects while concentrating on the nature of the physical materials applied to the canvas. Whether or not this is a fair characterization of Fauré himself, the four composers that preceded him all demonstrated characteristic strategies for working with the physical materials of sound extending beyond such traditional confines as harmony and counterpoint.

This left me wondering whether or not it was fair to characterize Fauré as an impressionist; so I decided to run yet another experiment on just how useful Google can be as a "knowledge tool."

I took the simplest possible approach, giving Google the two keywords "Faure" (without the accent) and "impressionism." The hit count was 91,300; but I was struck by the fact that none of the ten hits on the first page came from what I would call an authoritative source that would resolve my question. What amused me the most was that the article I had submitted only a few hours earlier to Examiner.com placed sixth on the list. (Vanity would tempt me to conclude that my own authority had just been validated by Google, but I know better!) Less amusing was that the first item on the list was a page from Yahoo! Answers and, to be more specific, Yahoo! Answers Singapore! Now, to be fair, this was the only hit on the first page that explicitly addressed my question in a definitive way; but could the authority of the answer be trusted?

In the spirit of Al Smith, let's follow his advice and "look at the record." Here is the way the question was posed to Yahoo! Answers Singapore:

Is Gabriel Fauré impressionist?

Can the French Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré be considered as a composer of impressionist music, or would he be more under Romantic? Also, what other composers other than Debussy and Ravel can be considered more impressionist than anything else?

This was definitely the sort of thing I had in mind as a question. This is what the "Asker" of the question selected as the Best Answer:

No, Fauré was a mid to late Romantic whose fundamental instincts were if anything distinctly classicist, even scholastic at times. Engrained with an almost all-encompassing sense of harmony-as-architecture, the fluidity and at times amorphous tendencies of 'impressionism' (the word is a passable portmanteau convenience, but it really belongs in Painting alone, for which it was actually coined) couldn't be further from his instinctive 'home turf' as a rule.

The answer came from a user with the handle Nemesis, labeled as a "Top Contributor." It also appears to have been entered relatively promptly.

In terms of the way in which it frames its reply, the answer is not a bad one; but is it an answer we can trust? To address this question I took advantage of the fact that my San Francisco Public Library card gives me access to Grove Music Online, which is part of the Oxford Music Online Web site. The entry for Fauré was by Jean-Michel Nectoux, of whom I know nothing; but I have no problems trusting the editorial management of Grove content. In this entry I discovered the claim that Fauré's Opus 19 ballade "anticipated Impressionism." However, this was the tip of an iceberg that extended far deeper than I had anticipated.

Here is the relevant paragraph:

His music may be divided into four styles, roughly corresponding to chronological periods, which represent his responses to the musical problems of his time. After early attempts (1860–70) in the Classical manner of a follower of Haydn and Mendelssohn, his first personal style shows him assimilating the language and aesthetics of Romanticism; he initially set poems by Hugo and Gautier, but he also set Baudelaire, and his best passages are either sombre (La chanson du pêcheur, L’absent, Elégie) or express rapt emotion (Le voyageur, Automne, the chorus Les djinns). His second period was that of the Parnassian poets, and coincided with his discovery of Verlaine, as in Clair de lune (1887), which accorded with his sprightly yet melancholy temper. He also sometimes yielded to the gracefulness of the ‘1880s style’ – melodious, tortuous and languid – which he used in certain piano pieces and the works for women’s chorus (such as Caligula). The success this music achieved in its own time has since damaged his reputation. In the 1890s his third style matured with an accession of bold and forceful expressiveness; the great piano works and La bonne chanson have real breadth. This expansiveness is particularly evident in the lyric tragedy Prométhée, which sums up all the facets of his style at the turn of the century: delicacy and profundity, but also measured force. In the style of his last period, he pursued a solitary and confident course, ignoring the attractive innovations of younger composers and the beguiling elements of his 1880s style. The increasing economy of expression, boldness of harmony and enrichment of polyphony give his work of this period an authentic place in 20th-century composition; the expressive dissonances of the Nocturne no.11 (ex.1), the whole-tone writing in the Impromptu no.5 (ex.2) and such highly chromatic music as the Scherzo of the Second Piano Quintet are representative.

In other words Fauré went through four stylistic periods, none of which made for a particularly good fit with impressionism. Furthermore, the work performed on last night's program was the Opus 45 piano quartet in G minor, completed in 1886. This would put it in the second period of Nectoux' classification system; and, while Nectoux described this stylistic period in terms of his vocal writing, it could hardly be taken for a musical version of impressionism. On the other hand one could talk about many of the episodes of Opus 45 in terms of that "sprightly yet melancholy temper!"

I am not particularly concerned with whether or not Presler misspoke in her casual introductory remarks to the audience. I have no problem with taking casual remarks in the informal spirit in which they are delivered. I worry more about whether or not this case study is a representative example of the quality of information available through Yahoo! Answers, regardless of the specific host country. Clearly one cannot draw any conclusions from a single data point, but one may wish to apply that data point as a basis for a more systematic inquiry. Consider, for example, the hypothesis that an aversion to saying "I don't know" may simply be an attribute of human nature, neither sinister nor innocuous. From this we might then propose a corollary hypothesis that giving a definitive answer is part of what Erving Goffman calls "the presentation of self in everyday life." Put another way, we establish our identity through our capacity to give good answers, even when the answers are only good with respect to surface structure.

This does not mean that we should undertake a "social engineering" project to change the course of human nature. However, if those hypotheses can be validated, they would provide yet another example of what happens when the world the Internet has made "bumps into" (as Ken Auletta likes to put it) the deeper structures of the social world. At that deeper level there are great risks in assuming that "wisdom" resides in the crowd itself, let alone in crowdsourcing technology.

In the pre-Internet world, to paraphrase the old joke about Las Vegas, what happened in idle conversation tended to stay in idle conversation. If something stuck with you after the conversation and if you felt it might be important, you might try to confirm it in your books, through your local librarian, or through a personal friend whose authority you trusted with confidence. Today you go to Google; and, if you trust anything, it is the authority of a high page rank. This problem was not addressed directly in Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?;" but it is certainly consistent with his accusation that Google is eroding our reflective capacities. This should be sufficient to lend a note of urgency to the need to explore the above hypotheses of how and why we answer questions the way we do.

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