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John Field: John Field (b. Dublin, July 1782; d. Moscow, 23 Jan 1837).
John Field is a shadowy figure on the musical scene; little is known of his music and even the facts of his life are vaguely documented. He was born in Dublin, probably at some date in July 1782 and was christened on the 5th September. John Field himself was an incurable romantic and helped considerably to confuse his own history by inventing half of it. His father was a violinist and his grandfather a pianist and at the time of his birth both were occupied in teaching music from a house in Golden Lane. The family were constantly on the move, occasionally returning to Golden Lane (probably the grandparent's house) and the subsequent five children of Robert and Grace Field (or Fields as it was sometimes spelt) were mostly born in different temporary residences. When John Field showed early signs of a great musical talent he was thrust forcibly into music with a view to adding to the family's financial resources and was often beaten if he didn't study hard enough. At the age of nine he was sent for further study with an Italian professor Tommaso Giordani who presented his pupil for the first time in public in March 1792 at the Rotunda Assembly Rooms. This was in a varied concert by star pupils in which John Field played an arrangement of a Krumpholtz harp concerto on the piano. It was given a glowing review in one Dublin newspaper.
In 1793 John Field's father, with Mozartian ambitions for his son in mind, left Dublin for England and the town of Bath, where they remained for a few uneventful months before moving on to London. Here John was apprenticed to Muzio Clementi, one of the leading piano teachers of the day, at a considerable cost to his father. Here he became very much a part of the Clementi household, studied hard and began to build a reputation in an already competitive field that included such rising stars as Dussek T Cramer and Hummel - a favourite pupil of Mozart's. Part of his duties included demonstrating the pianos that Clementi manufactured.
John Field had dabbled in composition for some years but began to write seriously around 1796. His first major work was a piano concerto in E flat performed in 1799, which became a popular piece although it was not published for many years. His first published work was a set of three piano sonatas, Op.1 in 1801. In 1802 Clementi took his best pupil on a trip abroad; first to Paris where he made the acquaintance of Ignaz Pleyel, composer and piano-maker like Clementi, and made a piano arrangement of one of his concertos which Clementi published. John Field's skills made a great impression in Paris and they moved on to Vienna where Clementi intended to leave John Field to study with Albrechtsberger, the teacher of Beethoven. John Field viewed the proposition with dread and persuaded his master to take him with him on a further trip to St Petersburg. John Field made his mark on the St Petersburg musical circles and when Clementi left in 1803, John Field remained behind as a sort of Clementi piano ambassador. There was a notable concert in 1804 followed by trips to other Russian cities, and he made his first appearance in Moscow in 1806.
With Clementi out of the way John Field blossomed out as a Bohemian dandy and gourmet, swiftly spending the money that he so easily earned. Composing was generally neglected in those years. In 1810 he married Mile Percheron, a lively and attractive person who failed however to make the composer settle down to an industrious married life. Several important compositions were completed and published at irregular intervals. They returned to St Petersburg just in time to avoid Napoleon's ill-fated march on Moscow. Here John Field indulged in various amorous pursuits and had an illegitimate son with a Mile Charpentier. By 1817 he was at his peak of fame and fortune and a popular teacher - numbering the young Glinka amongst his pupils. With strong rivals such as Moscheles, Kalkbrenner and Hummel active in Europe, John Field maintained a steady reputation and made a substantial income from teaching; but between 1824 and 1831, now settled in Moscow, his health was deteriorating, chiefly as a result of his growing addiction to drink and a general liking for self-indulgent pastimes. In 1831 he decided to leave Russia's cold climate for a while so that he could take advantage of better medical facilities in the West (he was already suffering from the cancer that was to kill him ten years later) and to embark on a concert tour. After a short visit to St Petersburg he sailed first for England where he had an operation and was reunited with his mother who scarcely knew him, so old and white-haired had he become. He stayed in London for a year, visited Paris, returned to London, met Clementi just before he died in 1832 and attended his funeral. He toured England, had a further season in Paris, then embarked on a fairly disastrous tour of the rest of Europe including Italy. He returned to Moscow in 1835, now a very sick man and hardly able to play or teach, but he was able to complete some more of his famous nocturnes. He died in Moscow in 1837.
During his life he achieved a great reputation as a player and teacher. Today he is mainly remembered for the nocturnes which were a new concept in romantic piano pieces in his day. Although he never had much praise to offer about Chopin, the Polish composer was a great admirer of John Field, teaching his nocturnes to his pupils and, of course, being greatly inspired by them himself. John Field played them with a smooth, gliding, cantabile touch. They are basically of simple structure, a melodic right hand with flowing left-hand accompaniment, lightly decorated and full of charming melodies. Their popularity led various publishers to add to the series by making arrangements of movements from other works and calling them nocturnes. The best known piece, the curiously though appropriately Irish-sounding Midi rondo (used by Harty in his pleasantly-orchestrated John Field suite) is a solo version of a divertissement. The concertos and other works have the same light touch which, at a time when the heavy, virtuoso concerto was on its way to popularity, kept them out of the standard repertoire, though they certainly deserve to be heard occasionally. Much remains to be rediscovered of John Field's output; sonatas, fantasias, sets of variations, miscellaneous piano pieces, seven concertos, various chamber works and even a couple of songs. Meanwhile John Field remains the delightful 'inventor' of the nocturne.
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