Field, John


An Irishman, born in Dublin, but better known as Russian Field, or Field of St. Petersburg, because of his nineteen years' residence in the Russian city. He was the inventor of the nocturne, that form of music which Chopin in later years imitated and improved upon and virtually made his own. Rupert Hughes has called Field " a great, though gentle revolutionist of music, to whom much of Chopin's glory belongs." He was one of the greatest of piano virtuosos, and is generally regarded by musicians as the connecting link between Clementi and Chopin. Field's childhood was a sad one. His father and grandfather were both musicians, and had removed to London when John was a mere youth. They were both organists and violinists of great talent, and from his grandfather John Field learned the rudiments of the musical art which he was destined, in later years to enrich. They were such severe teachers that the boy ran away from home to escape them and the long hard hours of practice that he was forced to undergo at their hands. He found the world even harder on him than his own family had been and was forced to return to his home or face starvation. Field's father, who had been engaged as a violinist at Bath, and was later at the Haymarket Theatre, London, apprenticed the boy to Muzio Clementi. He was the last of the famous master's pupils and was destined to be the greatest. Up to his twenty-second year he received regular lessons in piano-playing from Clementi, in exchange for his services. After a few years he accompanied his teacher to Paris, where his playing of Bach's and Handel's fugues startled the musical world. Later he visited Germany and created a veritable furore with his phenomenal playing on the piano. He made his debut in London in 1792, playing at public concerts the concertos of Dussek and Clementi, and again, in 1799, he composed an original concerto which he played in public to the greatest applause. In 1804 Field accompanied Clementi to Russia, and both master and pupil were well received in St. Petersburg, Field becoming so popular with the Russians that they have claimed his compositions as theif own. Field spent most of his remaining years in Russia, but his early days there with Clementi were anything but happy ones. His teacher proved to be a severe task-master, and Field paid for his instruction with much self-sacrifice and severe self-denial. Clementi was accused of being jealous of his talented pupil and the fame he had so rapidly acquired and did all in his power to prevent Field from excelling him. He forced him to  practice the utmost economy, paid him only a pittance, and the youth was often cold and hungry. Field at this time was a pitiable figure, unkemp in appearance, awkward, poorly-clad, shy and nervous in manner. In spite of his plainness of feature and the ungainly appearance he presented, all this was forgotten when he sat down to play. He had a " singing tone " as one musician expressed it, suave and graceful and his expression was delicately shaded, according to the musicians of the day. Clementi had taught him the secret of the most beautiful execution which that epoch could boast of, and this caused Field to be immediately recognized as a master. When Clementi returned to Europe, Field remained behind and shortly afterward established himself as a musicteacher in the Russian capital and became the idol of the nobility. There he married a French lady, named Charpentier, in 1813, a piano-player, and of this union one son was born. Field's intemperate habits, however, caused her to seek a separation a few years later. In 1833 he went to Brussels, and from there extended his concert tour to the principal cities of Switzerland, southern France and on into Italy, where his health became much worse. In Naples he was stricken with fistula and lay in .a hospital there in the most wretched distress until rescued by a family named Raemanow, who had known him in his happier days. They cared for him tenderly and took him with them to Moscow. Field died almost immediately after  his arrival in that city and was buried there. He survived his teacher only six years. Among the best known of Field's pupils was Glinka, Charles Mayer, Marie Szymanowski and Charles Neate. Field wrote some extraordinarily beautiful music, among others twenty nocturnes, which are invested with much poetical feeling and all of great beauty and melody. They were highly praised by all musicians of his time. Schumann wrote of them in terms of the highest praise and Chopin imitated Field in a manner that contributed greatly to his success. Field's nocturnes served as models for Chopin's compositions of the same name and the resemblance of the latter to the older musician was so apparent that many believed Chopin to have been a pupil of Field. Field's nocturnes were the forerunners of the songs without words, ballades, impromptus, and fantasies, which began about 1830 to be the fashion. Although he is said to have written twenty compositions in this form, he himself only described twelve of them as nocturnes. Beside these he composed seven concertos, and, in 1831, when he visited London six years before his death, he played his E flat concerto at a Philharmonic concert with great success. His concertos were all much admired in their day, three of them being dedicated to his famous teacher, Clementi. Beside these compositions he wrote a romanza and cavatina in E; four sonatas; quintet and rondo for strings and piano; polonaises; variations on Russian airs for four-hands; grand valse; capriccios; rondos and divertimenti. His fourth concerto in E flat is perhaps the most popular, and his concertos are more frequently heard than any of his other works. His sonatas and minor works are only occasionally heard and the famous nocturnes gave way long ago to the newer, more beautiful compositions in that form composed by Chopin.

In spite of the fact that Field's works are all of great merit he will perhaps be chiefly remembered as the inventor of the nocturne and as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Field was one of the most aggressive and successful participants in the rivalry that long existed between the so-called Vienna or Mozart School and the Clementi School of piano-playing. His style was distinguished by exquisite grace, charm and an intimate knowledge of the most characteristic resources of the instrument. He played with his fingers only and there was no unnecessary movement of either hand or arm. He was a peculiar genius and was displeased and disturbed by applause when he was playing. He was often known to stop in the middle of a piece and wait until the audience had ceased its demonstration, and then, showing his displeasure in every movement at what he felt was only a disturbance, he would resume his playing. His last appearance was at Vienna shortly before his death and on his return journey from Italy. He played one of his own nocturnes to the wildest applause, although then in the throes of his last illness. Franz Liszt wrote an essay in French on Field and his musical ways.