(b Dublin, ?26 July 1782, bap. 5 Sept; d Moscow, 23 Jan 1837). Irish composer and pianist. He was the originator of the Nocturne and of the style of pianism regarded as ‘Chopinesque’.
2. Piano playing and teaching.
Of Protestant Irish stock, he was the eldest son of a professional violinist, Robert Field, and Grace Field (née Marsh), and the grandson of a professional organist, also John Field, from whom he received his first musical instruction. Parental pressure ensured rapid early progress and Tommaso Giordani accepted him as a pupil for a year, during which he performed in three public concerts in Dublin. At the first, on 24 March 1792 ‘Madam Krumpholz’s difficult pedal harp concerto … performed on the Grand Piano Forte by Master Field … was really an astonishing performance by such a child, and had a precision and execution far beyond what could have been expected’ (Dublin Evening Post, 27 March). There is no evidence for W.H. Grattan Flood’s assertion that Field’s first music was composed in Ireland, though the crudest surviving piece (Rondo on ‘Go to the Devil’ h3), known only from an anonymous London publication five years later, is a possible candidate.
In 1793 the family left for London (again it is doubtful that, according to Flood, they visited Bath on the way) and secured young John an apprenticeship with Muzio Clementi. The connection may have been made through Giordani, for both Italians had worked together at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in the previous decade, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was to the Little Haymarket Theatre that Robert Field was appointed violinist on his arrival in London. John was also soon performing. The organist of Wymondham Abbey ‘received a letter from Messrs Longman & Broderip’, Field’s first London employer, ‘saying they shall send down Master Field, to play a Concerto on the Grand Piano Forte, at the evening concert, who, tho’ only ten years of age, is said to be as celebrated a Performer on that Instrument as any now in London’ (Norfolk Chronicle, 10 August 1793).
He continued to perform during the first years of his apprenticeship with Clementi: a Dussek concerto in 1794 and probably in 1795 (the last year he played in public until 1798); Haydn mentioned in his Third London Notebook ‘Field a young boy, which plays the piano Extremely well’. He also learnt the violin, seemingly with J.P. Salomon and in company with G.F. Pinto (his Stainer instrument was last heard of in Finland in 1920). At the end of his apprenticeship the 18-year-old Field became an established virtuoso on the London concert scene. Clementi also required Field to assist him in another branch of his activities – the making and selling of musical instruments – by demonstrating their virtues through his piano playing. Although his Variations on Fal lal la h1, were issued by Clementi in 1795 and followed by a sequence of rondos and variations on topical themes, the principal works of his London years were a piano concerto performed in 1799 and the three sonatas that Clementi published as his official first opus (h8) in 1801.
In the summer of 1802, master and pupil travelled on business to Paris (where a second edition of the sonatas was issued by Erard), to Vienna (where Field undertook a brief course of counterpoint with Albrechtsberger) and, in early winter, to St Petersburg, where the flourishing and congenial artistic life induced Field to remain. Before leaving in June 1803, Clementi had introduced him to a wide circle of aristocratic patrons and secured him a summer teaching post in Narva, in the household of General Marklovsky; his career in both teaching and private performance was assured. Clementi had already admitted him as his deputy and on his departure Field assumed the same high fees. A busy concert season (1803–4) culminated in his public début in March 1804 at the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society. Founded only two years earlier, it proved to be a beneficial influence in Clementi’s absence. After a concert tour in the Baltic states and a further summer residence in 1805, he first played in Moscow in March 1806, during the Lenten concert season on which his public performances centred for the rest of his Russian career.
His return to St Petersburg that summer coincided with another visit by Clementi, who left behind two other pupils (August Klengel and Ludwig Berger) and, in return for a piano, expected the ‘lazy dog’ (Field) to send his latest music to London for publication. He seems also to have arranged for the first publication of his pupil’s music in Russia, in late 1806, a reissue by Dittmar of the rondo of Sonata no.1. However, Field returned to Moscow in April 1807, possibly as a result of his liaison with Adelaide Percheron, a French pianist and pupil whom he married in 1810. Although his apartment on Vasil'yevskiy Island remained registered, Field seems not to have revisited St Petersburg until 1811. It was in Moscow, therefore, that his post-London style was developed. Clementi’s correspondence in 1806–7 mentions ‘a Concerto’ (presumably the 1799 London work), ‘a Quintette’ (presumably the first draft of the Rondo h18) and ‘something more’, but two prime catalysts drew Field back to concentrated composition after an initial period of establishment in performance and teaching. Dussek’s piano sonatas opp.61, 70 and 75, mature and stylistically prophetic late works, were published 1807–11 (and we see below that Field must have known these pieces), while the periodical publication in Moscow of Daniil Kashin’s collection of folktunes Zhurnal otechestvennoy muzïki (1806–9) rekindled Field’s lifelong fascination for local colour.
His first publications of new music (1808–9), the dueth10 and Kamarinskaya h22, were variations on Russian folktunes later used by Tchaikovsky and Glinka respectively. By this time also, he had evolved the characteristic texture – chromatically decorated coloratura melody accompanied by sonorously laid out left hand and pedal – which was consolidated by the publication of Nocturnes nos.1–3 (November 1812) in St Petersburg, to which Field now returned for a decade that saw the composition of the majority of his principal works. Fortunate in a fruitful collaboration with the foremost publisher in Russia, H.J. Dalmas, he saw the almost immediate issue of new works, and of revised editions of earlier ones, throughout this prolific period. A publishing agreement with Breitkopf & Härtel in 1815 ensured the spread of his music throughout Europe, while reports of his playing fostered an image of legendary powers. An informal artistic collaboration with Daniel Steibelt, director of the French opera in St Petersburg and whom Field had known in London, increased an already lucrative public career that encompassed even the first Russian performance (1815) of Bach’s four-keyboard arrangement (bwv1065) of Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins (r580).
Also that year, a son, Leon Charpentier, was born of a liaison with a member of Steibelt’s company, although Field remained with his wife and collaborated in concerts with her. They had a son, Adrien, in 1819, at which time Field was offered, and refused, the appointment of court pianist, a sign of his material prosperity. In December that year he performed a fantaisie during a theatrical performance attended by Pushkin; they appear to have become and remained friends, for a double portrait of them exists from the late 1820s. Their political affinities were similar and, given Pushkin’s involvement in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, it is not surprising that Field dedicated both the Chanson russe variéé h41 and Nocturne no.10 to another Decembrist family, the Rayevskys.
An increasing connection from 1816 with his last regular Russian publisher, Wenzel of Moscow, led Field to revisit Moscow in 1818 and again, for a series of concerts with his wife, in 1821. The third of them, on 20 April, was their last appearance together, and mother and child departed, the former to lead a life as teacher and performer which relied heavily on her estranged husband’s name. (She appeared with some success in St Petersburg, Kiev and Smolensk; she died in 1869.) Field remained in Moscow and in 1822 a notable meeting took place with J.N. Hummel, who was there on a concert tour; they collaborated in a performance of Hummel’s duet sonata op.92 on 10 February. Field introduced his Fantaisie sur un air favorit (deest 4A) and the first movement of Concerto no.7 a few weeks later, but from 1823 his performances decreased yearly (although his former pupil A.N. Verstovsky assisted him in a series of benefit concerts for his son Leon). He reworked Nocturnes nos.1 and 5 as songs with piano accompaniment (h50) for publication in 1825 and made important revisions to other works, while Nocturnes nos.9 and 10 appeared in 1827 and 1829 respectively.
By now his Byronic lifestyle had taken a permanent toll on his health in the form of rectal cancer. His social behaviour (tolerated with more amusement in Russia than elsewhere) was often outrageous, yet slovenly dress did not mar a striking personal aura, alchohol did not blunt a brisk wit and igniting a cigar with his fee did not diminish the aristocracy’s demand for private tuition. Nonetheless, the need for medical attention forced him to contemplate a concert tour, for which he prepared by performing part of Hummel’s latest piano concerto (in A, op.113), first published in 1830. He reached London in September 1831 (by way of Paris, where Leon continued his vocal training) and, after an operation, gave concerts in London and Manchester, met Mendelssohn, Moscheles and Sterndale Bennett, and acted as pallbearer at Clementi’s funeral. He published some new pieces and revisions of others while preparing Concerto no.7 for its first complete performance, in Paris on Christmas Day 1832. His reception, mixed in both London and Paris, was prompted not yet by any failing powers, but by changing fashion, and his relations with Chopin and Liszt were cool.
After Paris, the procession of concerts and declining health across Europe ended with nine months (1834–5) in a Naples hospital. Rescue by Russian patrons led – apart from a brief stay with Czerny in Vienna, where he gave three recitals and wrote Nocturne no.14 – to a last year with his younger son, Adrien, in Moscow, devoted seemingly to further revisions (published posthumously by his pupils) and the composition of the nocturne-like Andanteh64. At his last concert, organized by his pupil Charles Mayer in March 1836, he performed Dussek’s Quintet op.41; there seems no foundation for Nikolayev’s suggestion that he played Chopin on this or any other occasion. Both sons pursued musical careers, Adrien less successfully as a pianist, Leon as a distinguished tenor (known as Leon Leonov), who sang in the first performances of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila.
2. Piano playing and teaching.
That the majority of Field’s major works begin – and a high proportion end – quietly, betokens an original approach to the role of the virtuoso performer-composer. Regarded as the supreme pianist of his generation, his quiet, self-effacing attitude at the keyboard was as unusual as it was mesmeric: playing ‘as though he sat at his own fireside’, charismatic not through the grandeur of his technique but because of his musiciality and unmatched beauty of tone. (He once admonished Hummel during a public duet performance with a peremptory ‘ne tapez pas si fort’.) From the earliest, reviews emphasized the ‘sweetness and shading in his playing’, the ‘speed, evenness and purity of embellishment, strength and beauty of tone’, all achieved with ‘an inconceivable serenity in performance’. His pupil V.F. Odoyevsky recalled that ‘everywhere his first chord annihilated all his rivals’ and said that ‘under Field’s fingers the piano becomes an entirely different instrument’. Glinka, briefly also a pupil, remembered ‘his forceful, gentle, and distinct playing. It seemed that he did not strike the keys but his fingers fell on them as large raindrops and scattered like pearls on velvet’. Glinka did not agree with Liszt, who said in his presence that Field’s playing was ‘sleepy’. He considered rather that ‘Field’s music was often full of energy, capricious and diverse, but he did not make the art of music ugly by charlatanism, and did not chop cutlets with his fingers like the majority of modern fashionable pianists’. Both in London and Paris, Field’s performances of some of Bach’s preludes and fugues (Clementi owned the autograph of Das wohltemperirte Clavier Book 2) excited admiration for the precision and delicacy of his part-playing. Unusually, he also taught his pupils Bach, besides his own music and that of his virtuoso contemporaries, emphasizing effortless command and equality of all fingers, slow practice, and tonal control through hand techniques far in advance of his time, the whole subordinate to musical ends. Such distinguished pupils as Charles Mayer, Anton Kontski and Maria Szymanowska transmitted his style across Europe, while others – Aleksandr Gurilyov, Jean Rheinhardt and, particularly, Aleksandr Dubuque – laid the foundations of modern Russian pianism.
An acute ear for piano sonority ensured from the outset a new luminosity of sound in Field’s compositions, achieved through chord spacing, wide-ranging left-hand harmonic writing supported by the sustaining pedal, and an adventurous use of the expanding compass of the keyboard. London in Field’s youth was both in the forefront of mechanical advances in piano manufacture and the centre of activity for a group of forward-looking pianist-composers, the majority of foreign birth but including some whose residency was permanent (Clementi) or long-term (Dussek). Clementi’s influence on the formulation of Field’s style may be encapsulated in one work, his A major Sonata op.25, no.3 of 1790 (not op.2 no.4, as mistakenly identified by F.A. Gebhard and later writers, an early piece exploiting rapid octaves – which never formed part of Field’s technical armoury – among other alien features). Here melismatic decoration over slow-paced harmony, drone basses, fleet fingerwork, surprise metrical and modulatory interruption, and thematic similarities, are all reflected in Field’s Concerto no.1. The presence of Haydn and Dussek during these formative years afforded ready examples of the assimilation of folk elements into the current formal and harmonic idiom. Dussek’s London works gave Field a vital view of sonorous harmonic layout and melodic decoration, and the catalyst for the resumption of creative work in the early Russian years came specifically from Dussek’s three sonatas opp.61, 70 and 75 of 1807–11. Concordances of texture and gesture with op.61 and op.70, are clear in the first movement of Concerto no.2; passage-work and thematic elements from op.75 are found respectively in the first movement of Concerto no.3 and the waltz-rhythm finale to the Rondo h18, which was pre-published as a separate piano piece with concertos nos.1–3, in 1811. Nonetheless, there is a strikingly sudden maturity of utterance and range in both the publicly confident solo entry in Concerto no.2 (ex.1) and the private chromatic expression of the Fantaisie h15 (ex.2), both first published in that year.
There is also an ease in the early handling of Russian themes. David Brown’s reminder (in The New Grove Dictionary, 1980) that ‘the Russian thought more readily in terms of full melodic statements and subsequent variations’ concurs with Field’s own mastery of developing variation more easily than other Western composers of his time. His style also featured an uncommon fondness for pedal points, ostinato (and sometimes hemiola) patterns, and false relations. Three early duets (h10–12) reveal a keen ear for style. The first, using three themes, pioneers the sophisticated variation-rondo structure of the fantaisies, and introduces as local colour a balalaika figure. In h11 a very Russian treatment – repetition and subtle variation – is given to a melancholy, but as far as is known, original theme, while in the third duet, the constant variation of Russian folksong is created over a tonally shifting ostinato. Glimpses of Russian melody continue to be seen in later works, notably a hint of Aleksandr Alyab'yev’s Solovey in Nocturne no.8, an exotic section of balalaika-like repeated notes in Concerto no.7, and Kaminskaya (1949) found even a quotation from M.M. Sokolovsky’s comic opera The Miller in Concerto no.2. The varied harmonies applied to the Russian themes in Fantaisie no.3 and in Chanson russe variée h41 are knowingly apposite.
As a rapid modulating tool, the augmented 6th was to Field as the diminished 7th was to Weber, and appeared regularly from the London period alongside modulation by 3rds. Surprise key changes, often by tone or semitone, for drama or humour, tend to be quitted too soon for maximum effect, and long-term modulatory structure is wayward until tightened in the late years. Nonetheless, Field broadened his harmonic specturm to encompass suspension of the tonal centre by block chromaticism, as in Concerto no.5 (1815; ex.3), and superimposed dissonances beyond the vocabulary of his time in a late revision of Concerto no.4 (ex.4).
The 16 numbered nocturnes, and associated pieces in the same style entitled pastorale, romance or serenade, were perhaps some of the most widely-known and influential piano music in the early Romantic period. They dispensed with rigid formal considerations, relying on eliding variation of melody, harmony and accompaniment to achieve a unified variety in the exposition of a mood conjured without the assistance of a text or programme. Indeed, some of Field’s nocturnes are songlike structures – the ‘vocal’ verses introduced and separated by ‘accompaniment’ interludes – the whole accommodated within a single spectrum of variegated piano texture. In this, for the first time, dynamic differentiation is controlled by subtle blending of simultaneous graded finger pressures and sustaining pedal, as in Nocturne no.1 (ex.5), which also illustrates the shifts in melodic emphasis common to Field’s later revisions. While the majority of the nocturnes are treble melodies over accompaniment, nos.6 and 7 introduce thematic elements in the left hand and nos.13 and 15 explore a simpler, more Schumannesque texture, while no.14 is an extended operatic scena complete with interrupting recitative.
Field’s four substantial fantaisies (five with his solo arrangement, Andante, of the Quintet h34) are virtuoso works of high calibre, and in them he pioneered an influential early-Romantic large-scale episodic structure, not dependent on sonata form but a fusion of modulating rondo and variation elements. The variations are decorative after the Mozartian pattern rather than developmental like Beethoven’s (Field was not an admirer of Beethoven’s piano music, though he performed with pleasure the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata with Karol Lipiński); the best of them (deest 3, h20 and h41) are rewarding in both keyboard terms and harmony, as are the many instances of variation techniques in other works. The individual rondos, popular in their own time as brilliant entertainment music, bring less to us today, despite their pianistic and melodic felicities, and Field’s resource in this form is more fully shown in the final movements of the sonatas and concertos.
The first three sonatas (c1798–1801) are increasingly expansive in pre-Schubertian lyricism and modulatory resource, though their emphasis on pianistic luxuriance over cellular thematic invention renders them less close-knit than the C minor sonata which Pinto dedicated to Field in 1802. The fundamental stylistic influence is Dussek, in the richness of the sonorous virtuosity and cantabile coloratura. Even the opening of Sonata no.4 (1813) reflects Dussek’s op.10 no.3 of 1789, though the subsequent treatment, in (now more concise) sonata form (with motivically connected principal subjects), and an imaginatively harmonized folk rondo, is entirely original. sonatas nos.3 and 4 also reveal Field’s perhaps unexpected capacity for concentrated motivic development, seen again on a larger scale in concertos nos.4 and 7.
The concertos, despite their unconventional and often discursive form, were, from the publication of the first three (1811), central to the developing 19th-century piano concerto. Their orchestration is unusally imaginative, even in the many purely accompanied passages, with deftly telling wind writing, pizzicato, tremolando, muted and even col legno strings, and rhetorical (sometimes solo) timpani – Concerto no.7 opens in this way – while the powerful depiction of a storm in Concerto no.5 (1815), with climactic tam-tam and bell, is a worthy precursor of the Wolf’s Glen in Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821). Nonetheless, it is the originality of the piano writing, both heroic and delicate, which impinged on not only the concertos of Moscheles, Hummel, Kalkbrenner and their greater successors. Formally, Field soon adapted the rigours of strict sonata structure to accommodate one or more sections of contrasting atmospheric style and tempo, sometimes to avoid cellular development of mainly lyrical music, more often as an ‘inspirational aside’ to the main thrust of the principal ideas. Herein lay a weakening of control over the large span of the opening sonata and closing rondo movements which Field did not always surmount successfully (except in later revisions). By contrast the central movement – decorative variations or nocturne-like – consistently demonstrates the miniaturist’s mastery of harmonic nuance and melodic coloratura.
Miniatures of a blunter kind form the collections of short dances, mostly simple ternary structures in waltz rhythm. From the energetically bucolic to the suavely elegant, all share some common denominators – characteristic pedal effects in the écossaises, aspirated dotted rhythms elsewhere – and, despite doubts over authenticity, all but the last and finest, the Sehnsuchts-Walzer (h51), survive in editions from publishers with whom Field had known connections. The Six danses h42, though known only from an 1820 German edition, refer to the Kehraus also heard in Schumann’s Papillons, and may date from Field’s first visit to Vienna in 1802, a supposition supported by similarities to the waltz finale of the Sonata no.2 (London, 1801) and a typographical idiosyncracy on the title-page familiar from Russian editions of Field’s other music. The studies are of two kinds, scalic and figural finger exercises, which gain cohesion by modulating through all keys (h33 and 48), and attractive character-pieces that look forward to Stephen Heller (the left hand study from the Quinteth34) and the melodic studies of Carl Loeschhorn (h44 and that derived from Concerto no.4h28).
The chamber music, all for strings and piano, arose from three circumstances: the widespread Russian fondness for string quartet playing, the practice of rehearsing (and occasionally performing) concertos with soloist and string quartet only, and Field’s deliberate use of supporting accompaniment to sustain his early experiments in keyboard texture (internal evidence suggests that the Fantaisie h15 and Nocturne no.3 were also originally conceived in this form), hence the generally subordinate melodic role of the string parts, despite the felicitous scoring of the harmonic underpinning. Only the opening Pastorale of Divertissement no.2, and the Quintet h34, a fine single-movement fantaisie in rondo-variation form, show some equality between the forces.
In the decade 1821–31, Field encountered a creative crisis, presaged by the extensive revisions to Concerto no.6 between the first performance (1819) and publication (1823), and confirmed by his indecision over the final version of Concerto no.7 (1821–32). Of new music, only the Fantaisie no.3, in its original form with orchestra, and the Nocturnes nos.9 and 10, were completed and published immediately. For the rest, he returned to earlier works (primarily Sonatas no.1 and 3, Concertos nos.1–5, the two Quintets h18 and 34), to intensify their harmonic and melodic content and, above all, to reassess their overall proportions, particularly those movements in sonata form. He had published a considerably more concise orchestral edition of Concerto no.4 by 1819. The similar shortening of Concerto no.2 (A-Wgm) was not published, but, perhaps through increasingly unreliable health, the emphasis lay with radical reworkings of accompanied works for solo piano. He made valuable concert sonatas out of concertos nos.1–5 (Plantinga describes Clementi’s less successful similar efforts three decades earlier), though the notable adaptation of sonata form – especially the reduction of the recapitulations to token, almost coda-like, reminiscences of the lengthy expositions and developments – had no influence on his contemporaries or immediate successors, as they too were not published. Field’s late grasp of sonata structure in early Romantic terms is in marked contrast to Hummel’s adhrence to formal repetition.
Brahms owned a copy of Field’s first three nocturnes and his Variations op.21 no.1 reflect the widespread triplet accompaniment figures, pedal notes and semitonal clashes of Nocturne no.3, while Schumann viewed afresh many details of its ideas in his Romanze op.28 no.2. His many eulogistic reviews of Field’s music suggest a thorough knowledge of it, particularly of Concerto no.7, the autograph full score of which he studied: hence the slower interlude in the first movement, the intermezzo style for a central movement (erased in Field’s case, perhaps mistakenly, before publication), and the waltz-rhythm finale, which his own piano concerto shares. Liszt, probably through his friendship with Glinka, used rare Russian published sources incorporating Field’s late revisions for his edition of the nocturnes and adopted much of Field’s idiosyncratic but idiomatic fingering into his own music.
Field was offended by the close concordances between his Romanceh30 and Chopin’s Nocturne op.9 no.2; Branson (1973) catalogued myriad other derivations, both virtuoso and poetic, many of which were already in Field’s vocabulary by the time of Chopin’s early childhood. The Fieldian songlike character-piece, transmitted to Mendelssohn directly through his teacher Ludwig Berger, and to numberless others throughout the 19th century, reached the 20th with the nocturnes of Skryabin and Fauré, while Metner is glimpsed in Field’s Nocturne no.11. Earlier, his pupil I.F. Laskovsky’s piano music (especially the two sets of variations on Russian folk melodies, the Barcarolle and Chansonnette sans paroles) reflects Field’s own and, if Glinka adopted Field’s figuration without his piquant dissonance, his masterly handling of folksong stems directly from Field.
Asaf'yev (1947) asserted that, through Dubuque’s pupils Balakirev and Nikolay Zverev (Zverev taught Skryabin and Rachmaninoff), ‘the history of the Russian Piano School Field’s tradition was long and influential’. The popularity of his music waned, apart from the nocturnes, only in the last years of the 19th century. Ferruccio Busoni did not live to instigate his planned Field revival in the 1920s, and no other great pianist has yet taken up Field’s challenge of bel canto and self-effacing virtuosity. Indeed, they may neither mirror his performing practice nor study his final texts until editions that include his fingering and the mature revisions to many of his most substantial works are published. Nonetheless, Field remains one of the most original figures in the development of Romantic piano music.
Editions: John Field: Piano Concertos [nos.1–3], ed. F. Merrick, MB, xvii (1961)John Field: Klaviersonaten [nos.1–4], ed. R. Langley (Munich, 1983)John Field: [Piano Works I] Nocturnes and Related Pieces, ed. R. Langley, MB, cxxi (1997) [N]
no. in Hopkinson (1961); numbers without suffix are given for editions not listed in Hopkinson; works not in Hopkinson carry deest numbers
revised or arranged from
revised or arranged as
listed in alphabetical order of genre
Allegro, c, ded. M. Szymanowska, F-Ppo
Andante, A, GB-Lbl
Andante inédit, E, ?1836 (St Petersburg, 1852); N22
Bärentanz, C (Langensalza, 1912)
Concerto no.1, E, arr. pf solo, Lcm (London, 1835)