Art and Culture

Musical Notes: John Field

Have you ever relaxed as your ears breathed in the dreamiest piano music imaginable? The John Field (1782~1837) experience is to enjoy the most sensual massage by the world’s most gifted masseur.

Most of us are familiar with the names and works of Friedrich Chopin, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, and Josef Haydn. Sadly, few have heard of the Irish composer, John Field. Of him, Franz Liszt said: None have quite attained to these vague Aeolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy.”

Field was born of a musical family in 1782. Through his violinist father’s connections the youngster progressed under the masters of his day. As so often happens with maverick prodigies the gifted pianist was soon to exceed his tutors’ abilities and to earn their respect.

The Dublin born composer is rightly considered to be the Father of the Nocturne; a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night. A nocturne is a gentle undemanding piano piece perfectly suited to relaxing and is often played during romantic scenes in television or movie dramas.

There is pathos about a nocturne: Its soft whimsical melody never abandons you. I recall watching a movie that ended with the betrayal and shooting down of the outlaw, Billy the Kid. Sixty years later and all I recall is the soothing piano melody that formed the backdrop to the tragedy.

John Field’s family moved to London when he was eleven years old. In 1802 as a twenty-year old he travelled to Saint Petersburg via Paris and Vienna. Field’s preferred choice was the city of Tsar Peter the Great, then the Russian capital. The Irish melodist was a regular visitor to Moscow and neighbouring Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Field included in his travels England and Italy.

It was in St Petersburg that John Field composed most of his enchanting melodies. These were to soon catch the ear of his Polish born contemporary pianist Friedrich Chopin. The Polish composer was enchanted and adopted the nocturne as his own.

Perhaps the Polish-French composer was better at marketing. He, rather than Field, is often spoken of as the founder of the nocturne. John Field gave his last concert in March 1836 and died in Moscow a year later. ~ Michael Walsh

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