Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Field, John (1782-1837)

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FIELD, JOHN (1782–1837), composer, was the son of a violinist employed in a theatre in Dublin, where he was born on 26 July 1782. His grandfather, an organist, taught him the rudiments of music. His father and grandfather were determined to make an infant prodigy of him, and so great were the hardships he experienced in the process, that he made an abortive attempt to run away from home. This must have been at an extremely early age, for he was only twelve years old when he made his first appearance as a London performer. His father had procured an engagement at Bath and subsequently at the Haymarket Theatre; and, apparently soon after his arrival in London, the boy was placed under Clementi's tuition, perhaps as an articled pupil. In 1794 or 1795 he played at a public concert, appearing in concertos by Dussek and Clementi. He was advertised as being only ten years of age. In 1799 he performed a concerto of his own composition at a concert given for the benefit of the younger Pinto, and again at a concert of the New Musical Fund. This concerto attained considerable popularity, and he was engaged to play it at a concert given at Covent Garden Theatre on 20 Feb. 1801, when Mozart's ‘Requiem’ and Handel's ‘L'Allegro’ were also given. The ‘Morning Post’ of a day or two after the concert called him (wrongly, of course) ‘the late pupil of Clementi,’ and his concerto ‘the celebrated one composed by himself.’ Parke, in his ‘Musical Memoirs,’ is less flattering: ‘Mr. Field (pupil of Clementi) played a concerto on the pianoforte, which was more remarkable for rapidity than expression;’ but Parke also calls Mozart's ‘Requiem’ ‘a composition of infinite science and dulness.’ In 1802 Clementi took him, by way of Paris and Vienna, to St. Petersburg, where Clementi established a branch of his pianoforte business, and where Field was apprenticed to him as a salesman, whose duties consisted largely in showing off the pianofortes to intending purchasers. The statement, commonly made, that he had been apprenticed to the firm established by Clementi in London, turns out to be unsupported. At the concerts given by the master and pupil Field was received with great favour. Although the Russian tour was so successful, the avarice which was the chief defect of Clementi's character showed itself in his treatment of Field, who was at one time nearly perished with cold for want of proper clothing. In December 1802 Spohr was taken by Clementi to hear Field play in his warehouse. He gives in his autobiography a graphic account of the awkward English youth, knowing no language but his own, and grown out of his clothes to such an extent that when he sat down to play his arms were bare nearly to the elbows. His grotesque appearance was completely forgotten when he began to play. Then, says Spohr, ‘man war nur ein Ohr!’ Field had made enough of a position by 1804 to warrant his staying in Russia after Clementi had left the country. In that year he gave a concert with Madame Mara in St. Petersburg, and for some years after this he had continued success as a teacher. In 1812 and 1823 he visited Moscow and was well received. His music, with that of Hummel and Rossini, is spoken of as ‘the rage’ in St. Petersburg. At some time between 1824 and 1828 he settled in Moscow. In the latter year he formed the intention of returning to England, but abandoned it, probably on the occasion of his marriage with a Mlle. Charpentier, from whom he was soon afterwards separated. A son, the issue of the marriage, subsequently sang at the opera at St. Petersburg, under the name of Leonoff. In 1831 a report of Field's death was circulated, and it was contradicted in the ‘Harmonicon’ for that year (p. 157). His ‘love of retirement’ is alluded to; hopes are held out of his ultimately resolving to journey westward. In 1832 he came to England, and on 29 March he attended Clementi's funeral; on 27 Feb. he played his concerto in E flat at the Philharmonic Society's concert; he shortly afterwards went to Paris. It is not impossible that the article on ‘The Present State of Music in St. Petersburg,’ inserted in the ‘Harmonicon’ for 1832, p. 56, may have been written by Field. In the following year he made his way, through Belgium and Switzerland, to Italy, where he was less successful. It is difficult to separate cause from effect, but it is certain that simultaneously with this reverse of fortune, habits of laziness and intemperance increased upon him, and for nine months he lay in a hospital in Naples. He suffered from fistula, which was aggravated by his intemperance. A Russian family named Raemanow pitied him, and took him back to Moscow. On the way they visited Vienna, where his playing, especially of his own ‘Nocturnes,’ was greatly admired. Soon after his arrival in Moscow, on 11 Jan. 1837, he died.

His ‘Nocturnes’—there are twenty works usually, though probably wrongly, so designated—and some of his seven concertos have an individuality and charm which can never lose its freshness. His music is romantic in a very high degree, and there can be no doubt that Chopin's ‘Nocturnes’ owe much both of their form and spirit to Field. As a criticism of the character of his works, Liszt's introduction to his edition of the ‘Nocturnes’ (Schuberth) may be consulted, though for all biographical purposes it is worthless. Besides the works mentioned the published compositions include two divertimenti for piano, strings, and flute; a quintet and a rondo for piano and strings; variations on a Russian theme, and grande valse, for piano, four hands; four sonatas for piano solo, three of which are dedicated to Clementi; Marche Triomphale, Grande Pastorale, airs en Rondeau, airs with variations, Rondeau Ecossais, Polonaise, rondo, ‘Twelve o'clock,’ and a few songs.

[Grove's Dict. i. 373, 519; Parke's Musical Memoirs, i. 290; Pohl's Mozart in London, p. 144; Pohl's Haydn in London, p. 234; Fétis's Biographie Universelle des Musiciens; Spohr's Selbstbiog. i. 43; Harmonicon, 1828, p. 141, and other passages referred to above; Brit. Mus. Cat.; information from J. P. Theobald, esq.]

J. A. F. M.