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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: John Field

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

It's interesting how a new century can make things happen. The start of the 19th century is a case in point. In 1801 Mozart was dead, Haydn was an old man writing his final masterpieces, Beethoven was a young firebrand making his mark and Schubert was a toddler. As we know, European art entered the romantic era with a new passion, a new sense of individuality, and a willingness to throw out the forms and strictures of the classical era. But as is often the case in music, some of the most interesting - and innovative - composers are now on the fringe of our consciousness. They're overshadowed by bigger names who either lived at the same time or came soon after. In this article I want to look at the life and work of one such composer, who almost single-handedly invented a new way of composing for the piano. I'm referring to Irishman, John Field, the man who invented the nocturne.

John Field (1820)

The son of a professional violinist and the grandson of a professional organist, John Field was born in Dublin in July 1782. His grandfather was his first music teacher and he made rapid progress on both the piano and the violin. He later studied with the Naples-born,  Dublin-based composer Tommaso Giordani for a year, and under his tutelage gave three concerts in the Rotunda Assembly Rooms in Dublin in 1792 at the age of nine. The Dublin Evening Post described his first concert as …really an astonishing performance by such a child, [which] had a precision and execution far beyond what could have been expected.

In 1793 the family relocated to London and the young prodigy was apprenticed to Muzio Clementi, who at that stage was one of the most famous pianists in Europe. One writer describes Field's connection with Clementi as more slave than apprentice. The young man worked long hours demonstrating the pianos Clementi sold and deputising for him in concerts, as well as working as a theatre violinist and developing his own piano playing credentials with Clementi as his teacher.

Joseph Haydn heard Field play on one his English visits and wrote about him in his notebook: Field, a young boy, which plays the piano extremely well.

The apprenticeship ended when Field was 18, by which time he was established as a major figure on the London musical scene. He was principally known as a piano virtuoso but despite the long hours working for Clementi and doing his own playing, there were periods in the London years when he was able to develop his skills as a composer.

Muzio Clementi

Very few of Field's early piano works survive, but he was clearly developing a sound technique as a composer during his teenage years. This little piece, published in 1797, is his rondo on Go to the Devil. [listen]

Field burst into the public arena as a composer with the premiere in London of his first piano concerto in 1799 when he was just 16. This marks the true start of his composition career and it was a stunningly successful debut. The critic in the Morning Post said that anything more calculated to display rapidity of execution, attended with characteristic musical expression, was never heard. The concerto's second movement is based on a Scottish folksong and the finale begins with drones which carry on the Scottish flavour. [listen]

Among his other involvements, Clementi was also a major music publisher but he declined to issue Field's first concerto after this public triumph. Rather, the first works of Field's to be published, his official opus one, was a set of three piano sonatas which Clementi issued in 1801. Only four piano sonatas by Field survive: these three and one composed more than a decade later. They are all in two movements; none has a slow movement. It is possible, though, that in performance Field interpolated an improvisation between the two published movements. Improvisation was still very much an accepted and expected part of concert giving in the early 19th century, but we have no idea about Field's actual practice.

The three sonatas published in London in 1801 show the influence of Clementi (who had written about 100 sonatas himself by that time) and, even more so, the influence of another established composer, Jan Ladislav Dussek. Yet what is remarkable is the fact that the three sonatas themselves chart a course of amazing development. The first sonata starts attractively but doesn't seem to break new ground. [listen]

Jan Ladislav Dussek

The second sonata is more expansive and dramatic, with a definite air of early Beethoven about it. By the time we get to the third sonata we are entering the more dramatic world of middle Beethoven, and there's even a hint of Schubert. [listen]

In 1802, the year after these sonatas were published, Field left London to accompany Clementi on a major business trip. They went to Paris, then Vienna and finally St Petersburg. The great Russian city was an active centre of music making and Clementi gave Field introductions to patrons and prospective pupils. When Clementi left St Petersburg, in June 1803, Field decided to stay and he rapidly became one of the leading musical figures of the city, commanding the same high fees which his teacher had been paid. His public debut was in March 1804. He first played in Moscow in March 1806 before returning to St Petersburg.

Field's return to Moscow in April 1807 may have been connected to his liaison with Adelaide Percheron, a French pianist who became his pupil and later, in 1810, his wife. Moscow seems to have been his base for the next few years, years that were pivotal in developing what Grove calls his "post-London style".

Two musical influences exerted themselves on Field at this time. One was the recent music of Dussek, which took piano writing in a totally new direction for the time. The other was a Moscow publication of Russian folk tunes which gave Field a new interest in localised influences.

Novo Mikhailovsky Palace, St Petersburg (19th century)

These influences started showing up in Field's newer works composed in Russia. Some of these were variations on Russian folk songs. This is the Variations on "Kamarinskaya", published in Moscow in 1809. [listen]

By 1811 Field had written two more piano concertos, although their published numbering is probably the reverse of the order in which they were composed. The concerto now called no 2 was described as "divinely beautiful" by Robert Schumann, and admired by Frédéric Chopin. It was the most popular of Field's seven piano concertos throughout the 19th century. [listen]

Of perhaps more relevance to Field's subsequent reputation, though, is his interest around this time in a sort of piano composition which exploited the sounds available on the newer instruments of his day: long, chromatic, florid right hand melodies over wide-spanning left hand accompaniments which made use of the new design of sustain pedal. In 1812 Field published two piano works along these lines and called them "Romances" but in 1815 he revised them and added a third, publishing these three in Leipzig in 1815. These stand-alone works were quite new and Field considered various titles for them: romance, pastorale, serenade… Eventually he settled on the French word Nocturne. This music initially suggests night - darkness, dreaminess, quietness - but the emotional landscape in the piano nocturne soon widened to include feelings of regret, sadness, memory and desire. In short, the perfect piano piece for the romantic age. This is the third Nocturne from that set published in 1812. [listen]

In 1815 Field returned to St Petersburg, which became his base for the next ten years or so. His works were widely published throughout Europe and his reputation as a composer increased alongside his fame as a virtuoso pianist.

Daniel Steibelt

Field had at this time two collaborations with the French opera company in St Petersburg. One was an informal artistic collaboration with the company's director, Daniel Steibelt (himself a famed pianist), which saw him take part in a dazzling series of concerts in the city. The other was an informal liaison with a woman in the company which led to the birth of a son, Leon Charpentier. Field's wife Adelaide remained with him, though, and she continued to perform with him in his concerts. They eventually had their own son together, Adrien, who was born in 1819. In that same year, Field was offered the post of Imperial Court Pianist, which he refused. This gives a clear indication of the prosperity his career had brought him.

During his career Field continued to develop the Nocturne. The fourth, fifth and sixth appeared in 1817. Of these, perhaps the fifth is the best-known. [listen]

In the same year, 1817, Field completed his extraordinary fifth piano concerto, which has the subtitle The Blazing Storm. This was written in response to a 1798 piano concerto by Daniel Steibelt, still very popular, which was called The Storm. Though on friendly terms with Steibelt there seems little doubt Field's own "storm concerto" was designed to outdo that of his colleague.

The fifth concerto is full of innovations. The storm music (which comes in the middle of the first movement) contains effects which suggest thunder, lightning, rain and wind, and these are aided by the unprecedented use of a tam-tam (a type of gong) in a piano concerto. The sheer power of this music would have sent shudders through the Russian audience, coming only a few years after Napoleon's 1812 onslaught. The first movement also contains another innovation - an accompanied cadenza - but it's the storm music which makes the lasting impression on the listener. [listen]

Field continued to give occasional concerts in Moscow, doing so in 1818 and again in 1821. In the 1821 concerts his collaborator was his wife but on 20 April, after the third concert in the series, she left him, taking their son Adrien with her. After her departure Field stayed in Moscow, and in 1822 a famous meeting with Johann Nepomuk Hummel took place and they performed together. (See an earlier post in this blog devoted to Hummel.)

Around this time the beautiful E minor Nocturne was written. Suggestions of Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata can be heard in this, as can hints of the florid melodies which would be well-known in Chopin's later nocturnes. [listen]

In 1822 this Nocturne was published in Leipzig, and it had already been published in St Petersburg the year before. Field is mostly remembered today as the man who invented the piano nocturne, a form made famous by Chopin. To put the two men in context, Chopin was 28 years younger than Field. His first nocturne wasn't written until about 1829, eight years after the piece linked to above. Of course, Chopin's nocturnes take the emotional temperature of the form to a much higher level, and they are generally regarded today as better pieces than Field's, but this wasn't always the case. Contemporary comparisons of the nocturnes of both men often saw Field's subtler works as superior. One critic put it this way:

…when Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field shrugs his shoulders, Chopin twists his whole body; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of cayenne pepper. In short, if one holds Field's charming romances before a distorting, concave mirror, so that every delicate impression becomes a coarse one, one gets Chopin's work. We implore Mr Chopin to return to nature.

Frédéric Chopin

By 1830 Field was seriously unwell. He had led a life described in Grove as "Byronic" and his outrageous behaviour, heavy drinking, slovenly dress and generally dissolute manner of living preceded a diagnosis of rectal cancer. He was still loved and admired, despite some of his social indiscretions, and many of his contemporaries attested to a charming personal aura about him.

Still, he needed money for medical treatment, and in 1831 undertook a major concert tour. He gave concerts in Paris, London and Manchester. He had surgery during the tour and was a pallbearer at Clementi's funeral. In England he met Felix Mendelssohn, Ignaz Moscheles and William Sterndale Bennett. His seventh and final piano concerto, composed but not performed complete in 1822, was revised and given its first complete performance in Paris on Christmas Day 1832. There it had a mixed reception. The audience was apparently ecstatic but professional opinion was less enthusiastic; already Field's style was being seen as old fashioned. Liszt and Chopin, who were in the audience, were polite but kept their distance. [listen]

The tour took its understandable toll on Field's health and he ended up spending nine months in a hospital in Naples in 1834-35. Russian supporters rescued him from there and after a brief stay with Carl Czerny in Vienna returned to Moscow. In Moscow, his and Adelaide's son Adrien, now in his late teens, looked after his father for a final year, 1836. John Field died in Moscow on 23 January 1837 at the age of 54.

Adelaide Percheron-Field continued to give concerts in her own right throughout Europe and did much to perpetuate the reputation of her late husband. She lived until 1869. Their son Adrien had a modest career as a pianist.

John Field's other son, Leon Charpentier, went on to have an impressive career as a tenor, singing in Russia under the name Leon Leonov. He sang at the Bolshoi in the premiere performances of two of Mikhail Glinka's most famous works: A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, and later made his career at the Mariinsky Theatre. He died in 1872.

John Field's contribution to the world of music is far greater than paving the way for Chopin. He saw and heard in the piano new sounds and his writing - the way he spaced chords, the way he wrote left hand accompaniments, the way he used the sustain pedal - these all led to a luminous sound we nowadays tend to call "Chopinesque". The fact that it's really "Fieldesque" is all too easily forgotten.

The article in Grove online, used as the basis for this post, ends with a neat summary of Field's place in history:

Field remains one of the most original figures in the development of Romantic piano music.

Here's hoping that not only the nocturnes, but the concertos, the sonatas and the other works - all of which involve the piano in some way - are able to see the light of day again in our concert halls. We'll let John Field have the last word, with one of his last works, a Nocturne in C major dating from 1836, the year before his death. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2009.

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