A truly nocturnal composer
Very few composers are credited with having ‘invented a form’, but the one thing most people know about John Field is that he invented the nocturne. It isn’t true, of course: others before him (Haydn for one) had used the term ‘nocturne’ or ‘notturno’, either for a short, lyrical piece or a kind of serenade. But it was Field who cultivated it both as an idea and a genre, and associated it inescapably with the piano. Perhaps more important is the fact that he was the first Celtic voice – certainly the first Irish composer – to make a contribution to European concert music. And his contribution, though not massive in itself, had huge consequences. Field came from a family of musicians and was something of a prodigy, giving his first concert in Dublin at the age of nine.
He also benefited from the generosity of his father, who was willing to outlay the huge sum of 100 guineas to place the 12-year-old boy in a seven-year apprenticeship in London with Muzio Clementi, who as well as being a publisher and piano manufacturer, was one of the greatest pianist-composer-teacher impresarios of the age. Clementi recognized his talent, and Field became the master’s favourite pupil. His early London concerts (with two years knocked off his age for publicity purposes) were a marked success. Even the visiting Haydn was impressed, writing of ‘Field a young boy, which plays the pianoforte Extremely well’. In return for lessons in pianism and composition, Field had to demonstrate the pianos in Clementi’s warehouse with his improvisations. He first appeared as composer-pianist at the age of 16 with the performance of his First Piano Concerto at the King’s Theatre in February 1799, and in 1801 published his Op. 1, a set of piano sonatas dedicated to Clementi.
The next year, Field accompanied Clementi on an extended tour of the continent. They travelled to Paris and Vienna, where Clementi proposed that Field would study with Albrechtsberger (the teacher of Beethoven) while he went on to St Petersburg. Field, however, implored Clementi to take him along, so the two of them finally arrived in Russia. At this stage of Russian history most of the leading artistic personalities were from other countries – notably from France, Italy and Germany, whence Peter the Great had summoned the architects who designed his great city for him at the beginning of the 18th century. The Russian winter concert season had been well-established under Imperial patronage by the second half of the 18th century, and it proved a magnet for European musicians, who would brave the huge distances, the cold and the primitive conditions in order to perform and be rewarded in St Petersburg and Moscow.
By all accounts Clementi regretted taking Field with him, and treated him shabbily. When they performed on the same concert programmes, Clementi would claim the entire fee for himself. Louis Spohr, who met Field in St Petersburg that winter, spoke of him as an awkward boy who knew no language except English, with a single ill-fitting suit. His fortunes soon changed, however. Clementi at least introduced him to his first Russian patron, General Marklovsky, and Field elected to stay on after Clementi’s departure, as Russian representative for Clementi’s pianos and publications. In March 1804, he performed his own First Piano Concerto in the Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg. It proved to be his immediate entrée to the hearts of the Russian aristocracy. He was established in society; it began to be said that ‘not to have heard Field play wasa sin against art and good taste’. He began playing in the houses of Russian aristocrats in several major cities, and soon acquired many wealthy pupils. At last he had an independent income.
For much of the time, he lived in the households of his patrons, first in St Petersburg and later in Moscow, but Russia would be his home for most of his life. In 1808 he married Adelaide Percheron, a French pupil of his in Moscow, and in 1810 opportunely agreed with German Daniel Steibelt, his rival as top resident alien virtuoso pianist (who was working as director of the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg), that they should now exchange cities, Field going back to St Petersburg while Steibelt tried his luck in Moscow. It was an opportune move, for when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 Field was safe in St Petersburg, while Steibelt had to endure the burning of Moscow. 1812 was significant in other ways: Field composed his first three nocturnes, and also wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2, which is considered the most important of the seven he wrote and a key influence on Romantic concerto composers . In Russia Field had made his reputation by his poetic use of the keyboard, his particular delicacy of nuance, the production of a singing tone on the instrument and a technique that stemmed from the school of playing associated with Hummel (who was at first his rival but later his friend).
At a time when most concert pianists were most interested in enlarging the power and range of the instrument, Field cultivated its possibilities for intimate expression. This is born out by the testimony of those who heard him play. His pupil Alexander Dubuque maintained that ‘Much as I liked some of Field’s compositions, the chief beauty lay in his playing… his touch on the keys… the way his melodies sang, the easy, heavenly ‘floating’ of his scales and passagework, the nobility of interpretation’. The great composer-pianist Moscheles, who heard Field in 1831, noted his ‘enchanting legato, his tenderness and elegance and his beautiful touch’. Altogether, it seems that Field created a new, romantic ideal of artistic expressiveness rather than the cultivation of mere brilliant technique that had dominated piano playing up until then.
His fame spread across Europe, reinforced by the publication of his nocturnes and concertos. As the original ‘artistic’ concert soloist, he set the standard for the performers who followed him throughout the Romantic era. Chopin felt he had arrived at the peak of his career when the Paris audiences said ‘he had the touch of Field’. The nocturne (he had tried out other titles before), was thus the ideal vehicle for Field’s particular brand of playing. Unlike the sonata or rondo or theme and variations it presupposed no set form: instead it was a genre created by its atmosphere – an evocation of the quiet of night-time, requiring a mood of poetic reflection, more or less improvisational in feel. Some of Field’s nocturnes have distinctly vocal character: they are the original ‘Songs without Words’ – indeed some of them were later arranged for voice and piano as real songs. Significantly, none of Field’s piano sonatas, and only a couple of his concertos, have a written-out slow movement. When he performed them it was his practice to interpolate, or improvise, a nocturne in a related key. It’s possible to make too much of Field’s Irishness: he was ten years old when he left Ireland for good. But there is no doubt that he was influenced – a bit – by Irish and Scottish and later Russian folk songs, and he in turn was an important influence on two composers who would take their countries’ music as a prime source of inspiration.
Chopin was unquestionably influenced by Field, most of all by the nocturnes (Field also wrote polonaises); so to a varying extent were Mendelssohn and Liszt, while Mikhail Glinka, founder of the ‘Russian nationalist’ school of composers, was the most famous of Field’s many pupils. Field actually wrote a set of variations on Kamarinskaya, the Russian folk song that Glinka made the basis of one of his bestknown works; while his Air russe varié, published in Moscow in 1808, employs a rhythmic figure that clearly imitates a balalaika. Field became both wealthy (his annual income was put at 10,000 roubles) and famous. He also gained a reputation for riotous living. In 1815 he fathered an illegitimate piano prodigy though he became an opera singer.
During the 1820s – after his wife had left him to set up as a piano teacher on her own, taking their legitimate son Adrien with her – Field virtually ceased composing and sank into alcoholism, known even among his former Moscow friends as ‘Drunken John’. His health declined, and in 1831 he fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum. In search of treatment he left Russia and returned to London, where he underwent a partly successful operation. Here he was reunited with his mother before her death, and was able to attend the funeral of his old master Clementi.
He embarked on a tour of various cities in Belgium, France (where Paris Conservatoire students dubbed him ‘the old Falstaff’) and Switzerland. In Italy, in 1834, he fell ill and was hospitalized for several months in Naples, where he was discovered by a Russian noble family, the Rakhmanovs. They managed to bring him back to Moscow, by way of Vienna, where he stayed with Carl Czerny and gave some concerts. Back in Moscow in September 1835, Field composed his last nocturnes before his death in January 1837, aged 54. The story goes that when Field was on his deathbed his friends brought him a priest, who asked what was his true religion, for his parents had been nominally Protestant, yet Field had been married in a Catholic ceremony. Was he a Catholic? A Protestant? Perhaps a Calvinist? No, not a Calvinist – ‘Je suis claveciste!’ (I’m a pianist) said the Irishman, joking to the last.