It was during Rob Heffernan’s gold medal ceremony in the Luzhniki Stadium that the idea came. As the Tricolour fluttered in the breeze and the Irish national anthem ringing throughout the huge stadium, I wondered about another Irishmen who had made a musical contribution in the Russian capital. That was over 200 years ago, and the name of John Field is still held in high esteem in his adopted city.
Field was born in Golden Lane, Dublin in 1782 and was by all accounts a musical prodigy, playing his first concert at 9 years old. His family was musical: Robert (his father) was a violinist in Dublin theatres, and he received his first lessons from his grandfather (also named John) who was a professional organist. In 1793 the family moved to London and Robert arranged an apprenticeship for his son with the famed Italian pianist/teacher/composer Muzio Clementi. As part of his training Field had to demonstrate Clementi’s pianos to potential buyers and his improvisational skills were soon recognised and appreciated. His early concerts bought rave reviews, and in February 1799, aged just 16, he performed his first original work, First Piano Concerto, in the King’s Theatre.
In 1802 he travelled with Clementi to Paris and Vienna before going to St Petersburg. Apparently, Clementi treated Field very poorly, often keeping the entire concert fee for himself. However, after Clementi returned to London Field remained in Russia as representative for Clementi’s piano and publishing business, and soon had his first patron, the well-connected General Marklovsky. He performed his First Piano Concerto to rapturous applause in the Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg in March 1804. This one show brought immediate recognition and, with the increase in lucrative work that followed, Field’s financial position quickly improved.
Field developed his style which was a remove from the dramatic, virtuosic bravura of his predecessors. Their highly technical style was at odds with Field’s expressive, delicate playing which was praised by such luminaries of the Romantic Period as Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt. During this time players and composers were developing various forms of music for the piano with the sonata, rondo and fugue being the most popular. However, Fields’s work in developing the nocturne, a piece that emphasised mood rather than technical embellishment, was both original and vital to the growth of classical composition. And with his unique, delicate playing style, Field created a new ideal for future artistic expression that was taken on by succeeding composers, most notably by Frederick Chopin. The nocturne, with its nighttime feeling of thoughtful reflection, was the perfect vehicle for his expressive style, light touch and renown for improvisation. Indeed, Chopin felt he had reached the high point of his career when, after a concert in Paris, it was reported that ‘he had the touch of Field’ – which was quite a compliment, by any standards.
As was the case with such performers Field moved between Moscow and St Petersburg, staying for extended periods in the grand homes of his patrons. He did, however become independently wealthy and in 1808 married one of his pupils Adelaide Percheron in Moscow. He lived there until 1810 until he returned to St Petersburg, which was rather opportune when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and burnt Moscow. It was during this time that he wrote his first nocturnes and his Piano Concerto No 2 which is considered the most important of the seven he penned and a major influence on Romantic composers. And this is what Franz Liszt wrote in the preface to his book on Field’s nocturnes:
None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.
With his fame and wealth he gained a reputation for riotous, carefree living and in 1815 he fathered an illegitimate son with an opera singer. This led to the collapse of his marriage, and by the early 1820s he had stopped composing and sank in alcoholism, with even his closest friends referring to him as ‘Drunken John’. In 1831 he was diagnosed with cancer and travelled to London for treatment. There he met his mother shortly before her death (it was the first time he had seen her in nearly 30 years), and also attended the funeral of his old mentor Muzio Clementi. He performed some concerts on the way back to Russia, but his declining health limited his opportunities for playing and writing . He spent his final years in Moscow and wrote his last nocturnes in 1835. He gave his last concert in March 1936 and died from pneumonia on 23 January 1837, aged 54, and is buried in the old Vvedenskoye Cemetery. The story goes that when he was on his deathbed a priest asked him what was his religion. A Catholic? A Protestant? Or maybe a Calvinist? ‘No, I’m a pianist,’ he replied, joking to the end.
Although, sadly, he never returned to his native city he is remembered here with the memorial near his place of birth, and the John Field Room in the National Concert Hall (NCH). It is a beautiful space where I and many others enjoy wonderful music, something, I’m sure, the maestro would most certainly approve of. Play on!
* Big thanks to P O’Neill for Russian pix