A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Field, John

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FIELD, John, known as 'Russian Field' to distinguish him from Henry Field. Born at Dublin July 26, 1782, died Jan. 11, 1837, at Moscow. To a modern pianist who is aware of Chopin and Liszt, the name of John Field recalls little or nothing beyond 'Field's Nocturnes,'—not the seven concertos, so much admired in their day, nor the three sonatas dedicated to his master Clementi, nor the pianoforte quintet with strings, nor the 'Airs variés,' or 'Polonaise en rondeau,' or similar more or less sentimental inanities,—but Field's Nocturnes pure and simple. And here again, not the entire lot of twenty little sentimental effusions bound up into a nocturnal sheaf, but about half a dozen delicate little lyrics—the nocturnes in A, E♭, C minor, A♭, and B♭ (nos. 4, 7, 2, 3, and 5, in Liszt's edition), the very essence of all idylls and eclogues, 'Poésies intimes' of simple charm and inimitable grace, such as no undue popularity can render stale, no sham imitation nauseous. Both as a player and as a composer Chopin, and with him all modern pianists, are much indebted to Field. The form of Chopin's weird nocturnes, the kind of emotion embodied therein, the type of melody and its graceful embellishments, the peculiar waving accompaniments in widespread chords, with their vaguely prolonged sound resting on the pedals, all this and more we owe to Field.

Field's method of playing, as was to be expected from Clementi's best pupil, was distinguished by the most smooth and equable touch, the most perfect legato, with supple wrists and quiet position of the hands, a suave and singing tone, capable of endless modifications and delicate shades of expression. He is reported to have played his nocturnes with an inexhaustible variety of embellishments, and, like Chopin after him, is said to have preferred the smaller square and upright pianofortes to grands. Schuberth & Co.'s edition of his Nocturnes is prefaced by a charming essay in French on Field and his musical ways, by Franz Liszt, well worth reading.

Field came of a family of musicians. He was the son of a violinist engaged at a theatre in Dublin, who again was the son of an organist. His grandfather taught him the rudiments of music and grounded him on the piano. He told Fétis that both his father and grandfather forced him to practice so unmercifully, that he attempted to run away from home—to which, however, abject misery soon brought him back. The elder Field, who was subsequently engaged as violinist at Bath, and afterwards at the Haymarket Theatre, brought young John to London and apprenticed him (for a premium of 100 guineas) to Clementi, with whom he became a sort of musical salesman in the pianoforte shop of Clementi and Co., and from whom, up to his 22nd year, he received regular instruction in pianoforte playing. In 1802 Clementi took Field to Paris, where his admirable rendering of Bach's and Handel's fugues astonished musicians; thence to Germany, and thereafter to Russia. Here he was encountered by Spohr, who gives a graphic account of him. Clementi kept him to his old trade of showing off the pianos in the warehouse, and there he was to be found, a pale melancholy youth, awkward and shy, speaking no language but his own, and in clothes which he had far outgrown; but who had only to place his hands on the keys for all such drawbacks to be at once forgotten (Spohr, Selbstbiographie i. 43).

On Clementi's departure in 1804 Field settled at St. Petersburg as a teacher, where his lessons were much sought after and extraordinarily well paid. In 1823 he went to Moscow, and gave concerts with even greater success than in Petersburg. After further travelling in Russia he returned to London and played at the Philharmonic—a concerto of his own—Feb. 27, 1832. From thence he went to Paris, and in 1833 through Belgium and Switzerland to Italy, where at Milan, Venice and Naples, his playing did not please the aristocratic mob, and his concerts did not pay. Habits of intemperance had grown upon him; he suffered from fistula, and his situation at Naples became worse and worse. He lay in a hospital for nine months in the most deplorable condition, from which at last a Russian family named Racmanow rescued him, on condition that he should consent to return with them to Moscow. On their way back Field was heard at Vienna, and elicited transports of admiration by the exquisite playing of his Nocturnes. But his health was gone. Hardly arrived at Moscow he succumbed, and was buried there in Jan. 1837.

Field's printed compositions for the piano are as follows:—7 Concertos (No. 1, E♭; No. 2, A♭; No. 3, E♭; No. 4, E♭; No. 5, C, 'L'incendie par l'orage'; No. 6, C; No. 7, C minor); 2 Divertimenti, with accompaniment of two violins, flute, viola and bass; a Quintet and a Rondo for piano and strings; Variations on a Russian air for four hands; a grand Valse, 4 Sonatas, 3 of which are dedicated to Clementi; 2 'Airs en Rondeau'; Fantasie sur le motif de la Polonaise, 'Ah, quel dommage'; Rondeau Ecossais; Polonaise en forme de Rondo; deux airs Anglais, and 'Vive Henry IV' variés; and 20 pieces to which in recent editions the name of Nocturnes is applied, though it properly belongs to not more than a dozen of them.

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