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Summary Article: Field, John (1782-1837) from Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable

Irish-born pianist and composer, celebrated as the inventor of the nocturne, a type of reflective character piece later adopted (and developed) by Frédéric Chopin. Born in Dublin, the son of a violinist at the city's Theatre Royal (see CROW STREET THEATRE), Field was first taught music by his grandfather, an organist. The young Field, a pianistic prodigy, made his performing debut as a ten-year-old (advertisements exaggerated his youth by describing him as ‘a child of eight’) at Signor Giordani's First Spiritual Concert at Dublin's ROTUNDA on Saturday 24 March 1792, playing ‘Madame Krumpholt's difficult Pedal Harp Concerto’. By 1793 he was already composing for himself, his initial effort being an arrangement of an old Irish air entitled ‘Go and Shake Yourself’.

In 1793 Field père was offered a post in the orchestra of London's Haymarket Theatre, and the family moved to the British capital. Field fils was apprenticed to Muzio Clementi, celebrated piano teacher, composer and proprietor of a successful piano and music business. Clementi employed Field at his warehouse to show off his instruments to prospective purchasers by improvisation. 1802 saw Field and Clementi embark on an ambitious European business trip to promote the publication of piano pieces by various contemporary composers, including Field himself. They spent time in Paris and Vienna (Field's interpretations of Bach and Handel taking the French capital by storm), and reached St Petersburg by the end of the year. Clementi left St Petersburg in the summer of 1803, but Field settled in the Russian city. He was fěted in aristocratic circles, and became much sought-after as a virtuoso and teacher (the composer Glinka was later one of his pupils). The first Three Nocturnes were composed in the summer of 1814.

Field also travelled widely as a performing pianist. In response to an invitation from the Philharmonic Society, he visited London in 1832, meeting Mendelssohn and performing his own Concerto in F flat. He went on to play in France (again to rapturous acclaim), Switzerland and Italy. In Naples in 1834, however, he was taken seriously ill and languished in hospital for nine months until a Russian noble family, the Rachmanoffs, took him back to Moscow. He died just a few months after his return to Russia, on 11 January 1837. A deathbed anecdote records the ailing composer's somewhat laboured contribution to the stock of Irish confessional jokes. Field was asked, ‘Are you a Catholic?’ When he responded ‘No,’ he was asked, ‘Are you a Protestant?’ Again the answer was ‘No.’ He was then asked, ‘Are you a Calvinist?’ ‘Not that either,’ responded Field. ‘Not a Calvinist - but a pianist!’ Field wrote 7 piano concertos and a series of chamber compositions for piano and strings, but his chief claim on posterity lies in his 18 nocturnes.

Copyright © Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2009

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