John Field: The Irish Romantic

by Charles K. Moss, M.M.Ed., M.Mus.

Enthusiasts of early Romantic piano music are familiar with the name of John Field (1782-1837). Students of piano literature have likely studied one or more solos by Field. But the richness of the composer's inventiveness and the genuine innovations he made in piano playing and in establishing the independent piano piece as a legitimate solo genre for concert performance have largely and undeservedly been overshadowed by the accomplishments of those who followed him. Many of these later Nineteenth Century composers used Field's compositions as models for their own works, and they built upon his techniques and extended them into the full flowering of Romantic piano music.

A musical harbinger of the Romantic Epoch, John Field was the first important composer in a line of early Romantic pianists that began with him and ended with Frédéric Chopin. Born into a Protestant family in Dublin, Ireland, on July, 26th, 1782, John Field was the eldest son of Robert Field, a violinist who played in Dublin theatres. Field studied first with his father and his grandfather, John Field, a church organist. When he was nine years old, he began a brief period of study with Tommaso Giordani, who sponsored his first public performances in three "Spiritual Concerts" at the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, Rutland Square, in March and April of 1792.

In 1793, the Field family moved to London, either to improve the father's position or to launch the son in a musical career. By August 1793, John Field had entered an apprenticeship in London with Muzio Clementi (the famous Italian composer, pianist, and publisher) for seven years for the sum of 100 guineas. Robert Field joined the orchestra of the Haymarket Theatre. John's first public appearance in England took place at the London Tavern on December 12, 1793, when he played "a Lesson on the new Grand Piano Forte" at a benefit concert under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. He also played a concerto by Dussek at a benefit concert in 1794. Otherwise, Clementi held him back from public performances.

In return for his instruction in piano technique and composition, Field had to work as a kind of salesman-demonstrator in Clementi's piano warehouse. And his early talent as a composer was also put to use by Clementi, who published several of his piano pieces anonymously. Field also learned to play the violin, and he may have been the pupil of Haydn's friend, Salomon, on that instrument. Field's professional career as a composer/pianist was launched with the performance of his Piano Concerto No. 1 at the King's Theatre on February 7, 1799. His apprenticeship to Clementi expired shortly thereafter, and for the next two years he was in great demand as a concert pianist. Field's Opus 1 Piano Sonatas were published in 1801 and dedicated to Clementi.

In 1802, Clementi took Field on an extended tour of the continent. They travelled to Paris, Vienna, and finally to St. Petersburg, Russia. Clementi had originally intended to leave Field in Vienna to study with Albrechtsberger, the teacher of Beethoven. But Field dreaded the idea of further study, and he persuaded his master to take him along further to St. Petersburg. Clementi treated Field harshly during much of this tour, and he failed even to provide Field with enough money to buy suitable clothes. When the two of them performed on the same concert programs, Clementi claimed the entire performance fee for himself, apparently viewing his relationship with Field strictly as a business venture. It was agreed that Field would stay on in St. Petersburg after Clementi's departure in 1803. This arrangement may have come about in order for Field to escape from his old master's domination, or it may have been to create a new market for the spread of Clementi's publications and also for his English-made pianos. In either case, it was Clementi who introduced John Field to his first important Russian patron, General Marklovsky, in whose house Field lived for most of 1803. In March of 1804, Field played his First Piano Concerto at the Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg. He was immediately embraced by the upper echelons of Russian society.

Many performances followed in the homes of Russian aristocrats in several major cities, and he soon acquired many wealthy pupils who provided Field with his first independent income. For much of the time, he lived in the homes of his patrons, first in St. Petersburg and later in Moscow. One of his pupils in Moscow, Adelaide Percheron, became his wife in 1810. In 1812, he settled in St. Petersburg again where he remained for nearly ten years, appearing every year in public concerts. Many of his Nocturnes, Piano Concertos, and other works were first published during this period by Dalmas of St. Petersburg, by Peters, and by Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig.

John Field's first child resulted from an extra-marital affair with a French woman named Charpentier. The boy, whose name was Leon Charpentier, was born in 1815. By 1817 Field was at the peak of his fame and fortune as a composer and teacher (Mikhail Glinka was one of his pupils). Field maintained a steady reputation and had by then a substantial income. He continued living with his wife, and she subsequently gave birth to the composer's legitimate son, Adrien Field, in 1819. Soon after the child's birth, however, Adelaide permanently left the marriage, setting herself up as a piano teacher in Smolensk where she lived in relative obscurity until her death in 1869.

In 1821, Field moved to Moscow, and the following year he met his chief musical rival, the composer Johann Hummel, who had travelled there on tour. Field continued to appear in concerts, and in 1823, he sponsored performances of his son Leon as a child prodigy. But during this time, his composing fell off considerably, and there were no important works by him published from 1823-1832. Field had long been addicted to alcohol, and during this period of non-productivity as a composer, the addiction became overwhelming. Field became the object of wide-spread ridicule, known to many of those who had formerly admired him in Moscow as "Drunken John."

Additionally, his health took an unexpected turn when he became quite ill and was eventually diagnosed with rectal cancer. In 1831, he returned to London, accompanied by his son Leon, where he underwent a partially successful operation. Field was reunited with his mother while in London, although she subsequently died in 1832. He was welcomed by the musical establishment, and he performed several concerts in London and Manchester. While in England, Field had the opportunity to meet some of the musical luminaries of his day: Felix Mendelssohn, Moscheles, and Sterndale Bennett. However, his reception by the musical public was less enthusiastic than he might have expected.

Field then travelled to Paris, where his reception was again mixed. On December 25, 1832, he performed his last major work, the Piano Concerto No. 7 at the Salle du Conservatoire. In 1833, he played in various cities in Belgium, France, Switzerland, and finally Milan where he gave a joint concert with the harpist, Elias Parish-Alvars, on November 29. In the spring of 1834, he arrived in Naples seriously ill and unable to play in public. He was hospitalized for several months, undergoing numberous surgical procedures. Field was ultimately rescued from this desperate situation by a family of Russian aristocrats named Rakhmanov, who offered to convey him back to Moscow. He recovered sufficiently to give three concerts in Vienna, where he was briefly the guest of Carl Czerny. Returning to Moscow in September of 1835, Field was able to compose a few more Nocturnes before his death in 1837.

John Field was the inventor of a style of piano playing that differed strikingly from that of virtuosos who were his contemporaries. As early as 1799, a critic pointed out the "characteristic musical expression" of his playing. As time passed, more and more musicians became acutely aware of the artistic sensitivity of his performance style. His devoted student, Alexander Dubuque, had the following to say about Field's musicianship: 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 passages...the nobility of the interpretation.

Clearly, Field established a new ideal of artistic expressiveness that replaced the mere devotion to technical brilliance which had dominated piano playing since the instrument had begun to replace the harpsichord. Spohr, Hummel, and Glinka (who had heard him play in his prime) contributed to the building up of a romantic legend regarding his playing. This legend spread throughout Europe, and it was supported by the publication of his Nocturnes and Concertos. At a time when most concert pianists were exploiting the many new devices to increase the power and range of the instrument, Field cultivated the possibilities of the piano for intimate expression. His accompaniments, though rich in texture, remained light so that they did not obscure the delicacy of his melodic playing. His fingerings were often unorthodox, but they demonstrated the great care with which he played each note of a melody. He was the archetype of the artistic concert soloist, and he set the standard for concert performers who followed him in the Nineteenth Century.

All of the works of John Field include the piano as an instrument, and it may be assumed that all his works were written for his own concert performances. He probably left many details to the inspiration of the moment of the performance, and many of his works survive in two or more successive versions. Even his full-scale works, the Piano Concertos, frequently have an air of improvisation about them. Only in the first movements of his three Sonatas, Op. 1, written under the direct influence of Clementi, does he demonstrate composition primarily from a structural point of view. Elsewhere in his compositions, it is the melodic line that dominates the structure of his works. All of his Sonatas and some of his Concertos lack slow movements, suggesting that he was in the habit of improvising (or inserting) a Nocturne or similar piece where these movements would naturally be expected to occur.

Field's creation of the Nocturne as a genre was undoubtedly his greatest contribution to music. It must be remembered that the piano "piece" scarcely existed before his time. Apart from dances and technical studies, there were only sonatas, sonatinas, sets of variations, fantasias, rondos, and fugues. Field created an entity that did not develop a given theme; neither did it follow a known form. The Nocturne did not even seek to convey the meaning of a literary program. Instead, it set up a mood and an atmosphere, and it appealed directly to the listener's willingness to share an emotion, generally an emotion of consoled sadness. The accompaniment generally occurs in the left hand in these works, while the right hand aims for maximum melodic expressiveness. Field settled on the name "Nocturne" when Nocturne No. 1 was published in 1812. Before that date, he experimented with other titles such as Pastorale, Serenade, and Romance. But in the titles, conception, and style of these pieces, Field anticipated Chopin's similar music by nearly twenty years. Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, and a host of minor composers were greatly influenced by the Nocturnes. They were the first "songs without words," and they satisfied the Romantic belief that music is the language of emotion that begins where words leave off.

Other piano pieces far outnumber the Nocturnes in Field's body of works. Most of these pieces are Rondos or Themes and Variations, but many of them have misleading titles. And many were originally composed as movements of his Concertos or various piano-plus-strings chamber works. Among the best of these compositions are: Fantasie sur un air favorit de mon ami N.P., the Kamarinskaya Variations, the Variations on 'Vive Henri Quatre', and the posthumously published Andante in E-Flat, believed to be his last composition. His piano duet compositions date mostly from his early years in Russia. Among these very interesting pieces is his Air russe varié which was published in Moscow in 1808. This piece is quite different in style, being based on a popular Russian folk song with a rhythmic figure that imitates the balalaika. Arguably, this may be one of the earliest nationalistic piano pieces from the Romantic Era. Field showed the way for Glinka and others in his incorporation of Russian folk songs in his music.

Although Field composed several works for piano and string quartet, in most of them the string parts are little more than an optional accompaniment. Field provided this scoring to satisfy the conventions of a time when piano solos were rarely heard in the concert hall. These same works appeared in whole or in part in versions for piano solo. Only one work, the Quintet in A-Flat, was conceived with a genuinely independent part for the string quartet. It is a single Andante movement in free concerto form, and it represents Field at his best as a composer of chamber ensemble music.

As a leading piano performer and composer, Field was obligated to produce his large-scale Concertos, the accepted medium of the time for the virtuoso. It was in the fast movements of these works that Field developed his more brilliant style of piano writing, and one can easily see where Hummel, Moscheles, and even Chopin derived much of their more grandiose piano styles. But Field was almost entirely preoccupied with the display of the solo instrument in his Concertos, and although the orchestration is competent and occasionally imaginative, its weakness lies in the structure, which is sometimes uncohesive, episodic, and often lacking in cumulative power. The exact same criticisms have been made of Chopin's Concertos. Even though Field most often used a great sobriety in his orchestrations, the Concertos are far from being dull, and when viewed overall, the brilliance of his piano writing more than compensates for the shortcomings of his orchestrations. The slow movements gave Field an opportunity to show the more expressive side of his piano style in public, and for this purpose he either composed a specific "Nocturne-style" movement, or he inserted a pre-existing piece of the same character between the fast movements. This was where Field best displayed his gifts as a pianist and composer.

It is quite true that among Field's compositions, the ones that adhere strictly to Classical structural forms are the early Sonatas written in London while he was apprenticed to Clementi. It seems evident from all accounts that Clementi allowed Field little room for variance from the strict structures in these works. Clementi was a pianist, after all, whose technique was even envied by (and most likely superior to) Mozart. Therefore, Field, realizing that he was under the tutelage of one of the greatest composers of his time, did not stray from the prevailing conventions until he began to establish his unique compositional style after his "liberation" from Clementi in Russia.

In the process of inventing what was then a new style of pianism, his silvery lyrical style, requiring a very subdued accompaniment in the left hand, while the right hand demanded to be played molto cantabile, Field was indeed breaking new ground. The formal structure of his Nocturnes and also the Concertos was secondary in his thinking. He was most interested in using the piano as a musical medium for lyrical, poetic expressiveness. For Field, the piano was an instrument of musical poetry, and particularly the Concertos were vehicles for his display of his new lyrical style. Field conceived these works for his own performance, and the fact that several of them do not have a scored slow movement is evidence that he would often improvise a Nocturne at that place in concert performance, presumably with or without orchestral accompaniment, depending on how "pressed" he was for time. The improvisational character of Field's works is similar in many ways to that of Schubert. Only in Field's case, the use of chromatic harmonies and greater range of melodic structure is apparent. In some circles of pianists, it is commonly thought that Chopin's style is merely Field amplified or Field magnified. This is certainly a valid claim to the extent that Chopin certainly began with Field's style, which he absorbed and later augmented to create his own unique expressive pallet.

John Field was one of the most popular composers in Europe during the first sixty or seventy years of the Nineteenth Century. Although a fairly rapid decline of his popularity followed for the remainder of the 1800s, there has been an upsurge of interest in his life and music in recent decades. This is evident in the many recordings now in print of his works, not only the Nocturnes, but also all of the Concertos and the many Variations. Musicians have largely adopted the view that John Field was a true pioneer of Romanticism, and he was, despite his limitations, the equal to any of the Romantic pianist-composers.

Works of John Field

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Chamber Music

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