John Field


Born: July 26, 1782 Died: January 23, 1837
John Field, the greatest Irish musical figure of the Romantic era, developed a highly influential keyboard style that provided a direct path to the music of Chopin. In contrast to his immediate predecessors, Field wrote music that calls for characteristically expressive and sensitive performance rather than virtuosic bravura. According to renowned and respected musicians like Spohr, Glinka, and Hummel, Field's playing was marked by a particular sweetness and delicacy and an emphasis on color and tasteful expressivity. Such qualities are reflected in Field's best-known and most influential compositions, primarily his nocturnes. At a time when piano music was typified by forms and genres like the sonata, theme and variations, fantasia, rondo, and fugue, the development of an independent composition emphasizing mood rather than thematic development or embellishment was both original and important. The development of the keyboard character piece paved the way for generations of Romantic composers, including Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin, all of whom were indebted to Field.

In addition to numerous nocturnes, Field also produced a significant amount of other music for piano solo or piano in combination with other instruments. Field's first published works, the Three Sonatas, Op. 1, are interesting mainly for the fact that, having been written under the influence of Clementi, they present the only structurally conventional works in Field's output. Otherwise, they are uninteresting and derivative. While more original in style, the remainder of Field's works are episodic in form and rely upon melodic charm and invention for effect. The composer's many dances, rondos, and various other short works are mostly insignificant, tossed off for Field's own use on specific occasions. The seven piano concerti, on the other hand, are wholly representative of the typical virtuoso concerti of the period, and while they lack originality, Field makes effective, idiomatic use of the instrument.

Field began his piano studies with his father, and later studied with Tommaso Giordani. He made his debut at the age of nine; in the following year, Field and his family moved to London, where the young musician was apprenticed to composer/piano manufacturer Muzio Clementi. On February 7, 1799, Field premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1; shortly afterward, his apprenticeship with Clementi expired. For the next two years, Field was in demand as a soloist in London but continued to work for Clementi. Their relationship continued through 1803, when Field chose to remain in St. Petersburg after his appearance there during a tour. Spohr's autobiography suggests that Field was poorly treated by his former master, and St. Petersburg may have provided Field's first real opportunity to establish an independent career. Field, at any rate, lived in Russia for the rest of his life, achieving rather remarkable success as both pianist and composer. Shortly after his death, his works faded into obscurity; today, however, his legacy as a seminal figure in Romantic piano composition is secure.
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