John Field. He sounds like a modern American composer, doesn’t he?
Actually, Field lived in the gap between the end of the Classical Period and the beginning of the Romantic Period. Mozart was 26 when Field was born and Field was 28 when Chopin was born. Field was a musical pioneer and, though a lesser-known composer, he was a major influence on many Romantic composers, particularly Chopin.
I think we imagine composers from the Romantic era as being French, Polish, or some typically “romantic” nationality. Field, however, was Irish. He was born in Dublin in 1782 to a musical family; Field’s grandfather was an organist and originally taught Field the piano. Later, the family moved to London where Field could study under Tommaso Giordani. He made his debut on the piano just months before his tenth birthday and soon after began studying under Muzio Clementi. While he studied, Field continued to concertize and was warmly received by his audiences and fellow musicians.
Field progressed quickly in his music studies, learning the violin and composing his first piano concerto when he was just 16. Two years later, his set of three piano sonatas was dedicated to and published by his piano teacher, Clementi.
In 1802, when Field was 20 years old, he and Clementi traveled through Paris on business, passed through Vienna, and eventually landed in St. Petersburg. Clementi eventually returned to London after securing Field a post as a teacher in Narva. For several years, Field taught and frequently performed with the newly formed Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society. By 1805, Field was concertizing all through eastern Europe. For those and the next few years, he suffered a compositional drought as he toured and taught. This drought finally ended when in 1808 he began to compose various smaller pieces. This continued over the next 30 years and eventually produced a set of 18 nocturnes, his best-known works which turned out to be highly influential.
Meanwhile, Field had married a French pianist and pupil of his, Adelaide Percheron. The relationship was an unhappy one and the two were estranged after more than ten years of marriage. They did have a son, however, who became a pianist like his father.
By 1823, Field’s concerts were becoming less and less frequent. His health was rapidly deteriorating. Field went to London for medical attention and gave concerts there and in Manchester. His teacher and close friend Clementi died in 1832. Field, after giving his last concert in 1836, died less than a year later of pneumonia in Moscow.
Field’s compositional style
John Field was a very unaffected man, uncaring of public opinion. Perhaps even a little lethargic. His music is the same, radiating sweetness and straightforwardness with just a touch of languor.
Franz Liszt was an admirer of Field’s simplicity. He published his own edition of Field’s nocturnes in 1859, writing in the preface: “Mr. Field’s Nocturnes have retained their youthful grace by the side of many things that have long become obsolete. After a lapse of thirty-six years from the time they made their first appearance, they still possess a balmy freshness and a fragrant perfume. Where else could we meet with such a perfect and incomparable simplicity? Nobody after him had the capacity to reproduce the charms of his caressing language, which affects us like a tearful and tender look, and which lulls us like the soft and regular rocking of a boat on the water, or like the gentle oscillations of a hammock…”
Chopin must have agreed with Liszt, for simplicity was what Chopin valued above all else. He once said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Field certainly achieved this crowning reward. Chopin must have been intrigued with Field’s nocturnes in particular, for Chopin took up the idea and cultivated it, composing more than twenty of his own.
“Field was the first to introduce a species which belonged to none of the established classes, and in which feeling and melody reigned alone, liberated from the fetters and encumbrances of a coercive form. He opened the way for all the productions which have since appeared under the title of songs without words, impromptus, ballads, etc., and to him we may trace the origin of those pieces designed to paint individual and deep-seated emotions.”
Such was Liszt’s declaration describing Field’s contribution to musical posterity. Previously, composers wrote music that adhered to forms such as sonatas, with carefully delineated sections and rules. But with the advent of the nocturne, composers were liberated to write music “designed to paint emotions” without the constraints of a set form. The nocturne is, by definition, without form. It is simply a “character piece” inspired by the night.
So, in this departure of form, what kind of rules exist? Does a nocturne only have to be inspired by the night to qualify as a nocturne?
Well, technically, yes. However, there are a few characteristics of nocturnes, as with any kind of piece. Field’s nocturnes can vary, but in general they consist of a tranquil cantabile melody above a flowing accompaniment, sometimes with arpeggios. Here’s Field’s first nocturne.
Chopin, when he developed the nocturne form, standardized this idea. Here’s his first nocturne.
This piece is typical Chopin with the melody, accompaniment, and particularly the mournful atmosphere. Liszt wrote a paragraph on this aspect of Chopin’s music, saying, “Chopin in his Nocturnes has made us listen to the harmonies which are not only the expression of our most unspeakable delights, but also of the troubles, pains, and sorrows with which they are too often combined… More nearly allied to suffering than those of Field, they are accordingly more striking; their gloomy and glimmering poetic stream bears us along with more force, but tranquilizes us less, and makes us glad to turn again to those pearly chalices which open, far from the storms of the mighty ocean, on the brink of some fountain gushing out under the shade of palms, in an oasis the beauty of which makes us forget the surrounding desert.”
I find a Romantic writing about another Romantic such a pleasure. Liszt’s sentences are just delightful, aren’t they?
Anyway. The key word that I would pick out from that paragraph is striking. Chopin’s nocturnes are more sophisticated, have more depth, and are simply more striking than Field’s. On the other hand, Field’s are franker and have, in Liszt’s words, “incomparable simplicity”. Liszt states, “If there be anything, the secret of which we seek in vain, when nature has not confided it in any degree to our talent, in order to be for ever its distinctive token, it is the grace of simplicity and charm of ingenuousness. They may be possessed by an innate gift, but they are never acquired. Field was endowed with them, and hence his productions will always preserve an attraction over which time will have no power.”
Listen to Field’s nocturne no. 4, for which Liszt himself admitted having a special love, and note the utter simplicity throughout.
While many people have forgotten Field nowadays, he was a crucial figure of the Romantic Period. His nocturnes were the epitome of the Romantic era: Authentic, idealistic, and conveying all the emotions the artist must express. Field may not have refined his nocturnes beyond the basic ideas they were, but they were filled with the sincerity of a true Romantic. Patrick Piggott, in his book The Life and Music of John Field, wrote: “Some of the other [nocturnes] suffer from defects of form, and in some of them the flame of inspiration burns fitfully, but the majority do not deserve the neglect into which they have fallen.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s a shame that these lovely pieces by such an important composer should be so rarely played.
Fortunately for us, we can rely on YouTube to hear these lesser-known gems. If you’d like to listen to Field’s nocturnes, you can find all 18 of them here. (I particularly enjoyed no. 14.)
I wasn’t able to discuss Field’s concertos or sonatas today, but I may sometime in the future. In the meantime, you can listen to them here.
Thanks for reading!