Inasmuch as the year 1914 was the centenary
of the nocturne (invented by an Irish composer, John Field), it may be of
interest to give a short biography of that remarkable virtuoso, especially as no
English memoir is as yet accessible. There are monographs in French, Italian,
German and Russian, while the latest memoir is also in German, and was presented
as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Leipzig
by Heinrich Dessauer in 1911. Let me at once say that all the existing notices
of Field - even Dessauer's book and the notice in the new edition of Grove's
Dictionary - contain no hint of his early triumphs in his native city of Dublin
as a prodigy pianist. Recent research has unearthed much new material which, as
here summarized, will prove useful to the future biographer of Field.
John Field - the son of Robert Field, of
Golden Lane, Dublin - was born on July 26, 1782, and was baptized at St.
Werburgh's Church on September 30 of the same year. His father had
"conformed" to the Protestant Church, owing to the fierce penal laws
against Catholics, and had set up a fashionable academy as professor of the
violin. He was also ripieno violin in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Crow
Street, and was one of the original subscribers to the Charitable Musical
Society in 1787.
The Fields were certainly a musical family,
as the grandfather of the inventor of the nocturne was organist in one of the
A Busy Childhood
At the age of eight years John Field was a good pianist,
his studies having been supervised in true Solomon-like fashion by his father
and grandfather and neither of them spared the rod. Indeed, it is alleged that
he ran away from home in 1790 in order to avoid the thrashings, but this lacks
confirmation. One thing is certain, that at the close of the year 1790 (or early
1791) the precocious child was sent to Tommaso Giordani to receive
"finishing lessons," entailing no small financial sacrifice on the
Field household. During the year that Field studied with Giordani he gave
evidence of becoming a virtuoso on the piano, and his master decided to give the
Dublin people an opportunity of hearing the youthful prodigy at a Rotunda
Field's debut was at Signor Giordani's First Spiritual
Concert at the Rotunda, Dublin, on Saturday, March 24, 1792, the two attractions
being Madame Gautherot (the famous lady violinist) and Master Field. The
advertisements announced Field as "a child of eight." This was merely
a "pious fraud" (not yet unknown in advertising circles), as the boy
was close on ten years old; but it is probably that he only looked about eight.
The piece selected for his debut was "Madame Krumpholt's difficult Pedal
Harp Concerto." Giordani gave his second Spiritual Concert on Wednesday,
April 4, when Magame Gaugherot and Master Field were again the two
"stars". Evidently Field must have proved a great success, because in
the advertisements he is described as "the much admired Master Field, a
youth of eight years of age." At the second concert he performed on the
grand pianoforte "a new concerto composed by Signor Giordani." He
again appeared at Giordani's third concert on April 14, and his playing elicited
the utmost encomiums. In the following year Field took to composing, and his
initial effort was an arrangement of a characteristic old Irish air, Go and
Shake Yourself (subsequently published by Clementi & Co., London), the
theme of which is herewith given:
Two other arrangements were made by Field, but Field's
efforts in the regions of composition and his nascent powers as a pianist were
lost to Dublin in the spring of 1793, when his father - owing to the
impoverished condition of the Dublin Theatre Royal - accepted an orchestra
engagement at Bath. Two months later the elder Field was offered a post in the
Haymarket Theatre Orchestra, and in October of the same year the Field household
was transferred to London.
Almost immediately his father apprenticed the boy to Muzio
Clementi, who at once recognized Field's genius.
The fact of Field pere giving a fee of a hundred guineas
to Clementi for the apprenticeship of his son represents a heavy sacrifice, and
is distinctly to the credit of Robert Field. As early as 1794 Clementi announced
the young Irish lad as his pupil, and we find Field performing a sonata of
Clementi at Barthelemon's concert. The fiction of the age was still kept up, and
the advertisements described Master Field as "ten years of age."
Mr. Arthur F. Hill, F.S.A., has an autograph manuscript of
a musical fragment composed by Field in 1794. His first published composition
was Del Caro's Hornpipe, with Variations, printed by Broderip in 1797.
Twentieth century readers may be interested to see the melody of this hornpipe,
which remained popular till early Victorian days:
On February 7, 1799, at a performance for the
benefit of Pinto the younger at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket,
"Master Field played his own concerto for the grand forte piano."
It may be well to note that Field was kept
for several years by Clementi as a hack for "showing" his pianos, and
one can well imagine the drudgery experienced by such a rising genius, compelled
to strum away daily for the delectation of would be purchasers of pianofortes.
Notwithstanding this, Clementi was very proud of his pupil, who not only
practiced the pianoforte assiduously, but also studied the violin with G.F.
Pinto, who composed a sonata "ascribed to his friend John Field."
On February 20, 1801, Field played at one of the Oratorio
Concerts at Covent Garden Theatre, and created quite a furore by the
performance of his own concerto, the melody of the rondo founded on the song,
"Since then I'm doomed," which he had composed before leaving Dublin
in 1792, as preciously alluded to.
The firm of Clementi & Co. wrote to Pleyel, of Paris,
on December 9, 1801, that they had ready for publication "some very valued
manuscripts of Clementi, Dussek, Viotti, Cramer and Field," and the name
ofthe last mentionied is eulogized as being "a pupil of M. Clementi, a very
promising genius, and has already become a great favorite in this country both
in respect to composition and performance. It is likely you will soon see him in
The promised visit to Paris of Clementi and his pupil had
to be delayed owing to business engagements, and, in the meantime, Clementi
published Field's Three Sonatas (in A, E-flat and C minor), dedicated to his
master. At length - in the early part of August, 1802 - the two pianists set
forth for the French capital. Field's playing of Bach's Fugues and of pieces by
Handel and Clementi took Paris by storm, and he obtained a similar triumph at
Vienna and Anspruch.
Triumphs in St. Petersburg
Towards the close of the year 1802, Clementi and Field
arrived in St. Petersburg, where Clementi - with true commercial instinct -
opened a showroom for the sale of pianos, retaining the services of Field to
display the instruments to the best advantage. Under date of December 22, Spohr,
in his remarkable autobiography, describes his visit to the music showrooms. He
waxes enthusiastic over the superb playing of the young Irishman. Poor Field -
at that date twenty years of age and still in an Eton suit, which he had much
outgrown - a pale, shy individual, unacquainted with any language English; yet,
as Spohr assures us, the moment that he started to play the piano all his
gaucheries were ignored and the real artist displayed.
When Clementi left St. Petersburg in the early summer of
the year 1803, he left Field behind him as a guest of General Markloffsky, and
the young Irishman soon formed a large and aristocratic clientele, being also in
much request for concerts. Evidently Clementi sold a grand piano to Field in
exchange for certain musical compositions, as appears from a letter written by
Clementi to Collard, dated Vienna, April 22, 1807: "Has Field sent you the
concerto, the quintet and something more, as I had agreed with him for his grand
piano? If not, pray write by Faveryear to him."
From 1804 to 1807 Field's services both as a virtuoso and
as a teacher were in much request; and he gave numerous concerts which proved
highly remunerative. Alas! like so many other artists, he was improvident and
lived like a true Bohemian - a life diversified with various love affairs. He
soon acquired a mastery of French, German and Russian, and was in high favor in
the most select circles. He got petted so much that he became indolent and
frivolous, added to which he was very absent-minded and eccentric. To complicate
matters, he became infatuated with a young French actress, Mdlle. Percheron,
whom he married early in 1808. The marriage ceremony was performed by a
clergyman called Syuruk, and an Englishman named Jones acted as best man.
We next hear of Field in 1812, when he and his wife took
part in a concert at Moscow on Sunday, March 10, for the benefit of the
orchestra of the Imperial Theatre. Four days later they gave a grand concert,
tickets of which were to be had "at the residence of Princess Trubetzky,
opposite the Evangelical Church." While in Moscow, Field became very
friendly with Steibelt, who was the great star in that city.
The year 1812 is memorable for the composition of a grand Marche
Triomphale "en honneur des victoires du General Comte de Witgenstein,"
quickly followed by a Premier Divertissement, an Air Russe Varie
(duet) and a Fantasia. In the late summer of the year 1814, Field
composed the first Three Nocturnes and a pianoforte sonata; and in
December of the same year Peters published his Rondo Ecossais (Speed the
Plough). In regard to the last mentioned, it is a misnomer to call is Ecossais,
as it is genuinely Irish.
Glinka a Pupil of Field
Between the years 1815 and 1819 Field gave numerous
concerts in St. Petersburg, and his reputation as a piano teacher was rapidly
growing. Among his pupils of this period were Glinka and Mayer - both of whom
wrote effusively of their master, both as a virtuoso and a teacher. During this
period he published his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Nocturnes, as well
as five Piano Concertos, an Orchestral Concerto, a Quintet, two Divertissements,
a Polonaise, a Grande Valse (duet), several exercises and an Air
Early in 1822 (not 1823, as is stated in Grove) Field
settled in Moscow for a time and became friendly with Hummel. He realized large
sums by his concerts and had an extensive teaching connection. His death was
reported on two occasions, first in 1828 and secondly in 1831. On the latter we
read as follows:
"The report of the famous John Field's death at the
beginning of the year is unfounded. This great virtuoso on the forte-piano still
lives; and, if his love of retirement can be conquered, Europe need not yet
renounce the expectation of being gratified by hearing him, but it is with
difficultly he can resolve on any exhibition of his powers."
Towards the close of the year 1831 Field accepted the
invitation of the Philharmonic Society of London to play at their concert on
February 27, 1832. His paying on that occasion elicited the warmest admiration,
especially his rendering of his own Concerto in E Flat.
At the Haydn Centenary on March 31 he played an Andante
with Variations; and on May 6 he played at a reception given by Moscheles, where
he had the pleasure of meeting Mendelssohn. Field's visit to London was saddened
by the death of his old master, Clementi, who passed away on March 10, and who
was accorded a public funeral at Westminster Abbey on March 29, Field being one
of the chief mourners.
Field's reception at Paris in December, 1832, was even
more brilliant than that in London; the critics were unanimous in praising his
marvelous playing. As is well known, Field did not think very highly of Chopin,
whose music he declared to be "un talent de chambre de malade." The
salle of the Conservatoire of Paris on December 25 was crowded to hear the great
Irish composer and virtuoso, and Fetis declared his technique as simply
astonishing. His concertos and rondos were vehemently applauded. The great
critic D'Ortigue wrote of this concert: "His is no school; neither the
school of Dussek, nor of Clementi, nor of Steibelt. Field is Field's; a school
of his own. He sits at the piano even as if at his own fireside with no
attitudinizing. And surely his music is that of the fairies." And equally
brilliant receptions awaited Field at the Pape Salon on January 20, 1833, and
again on February 3.
An Unfortunate End
In the spring and summer of 1833 Field astonished various
European centers, including Brussels, Toulouse, Marseilles and Lyons, frequently
receiving triple recalls. On September 30 his grand concert at Geneva was a huge
success, and a similar triumph was accorded him at Milan in November and
December. After his appearance at Florence in 1834 he proceeded to Naples, where
he became seriously ill and had to be operated on for fistula. He lay in
hospital there for nine months and was reduced to a pitiable condition,
accelerated by habits of intemperance. In June, 1835, the timely arrival in
Naples of the Rachmanoff family - Russian nobles - rescued Field fro his sad
fate, and the Rachmanoffs insisted that he should accompany them back to Moscow.
The last professional appearance of Field was at Vienna,
where at the earnest request of Carl Czerny he gave three concerts at the Hof
Theatre, on August 8, 11 and 13, delighting the fashionable audience by his
beautiful playing. Whilst in Vienna he composed a new concerto and a new
nocturne, and towards the close of August he returned to Moscow with the
Rachmanoffs. A few months later Field became very ill, and in the first week of
1837 it was evident that the end was at hand. Even in his last moments his old
humor did not forsake him, and when dying the following dialog ensued: "Are
you a Catholic? - No. Are you a Protestant? - No. Are you a Calvinist? - Not
that either," said Field, "Not a Calvinist, but a pianist!"
Field died on January 11, 1837, and was buried in the
Wedensky Kirchhof, Moscow, on the 15th. The following inscription was engraved
on his tomb:
Born in Ireland in 1782
Dead in Moscow in 1837
Erected to his memory by his
grateful friends and scholars.
The Etude Magazine