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The misunderstood Irish composer

Composer/pianist John Field’s birthday serves as a reminder of the uncertainty that underpins his reception. On the twenty-sixth of July, we ostensibly celebrate Field’s birthday. Whether he had been born the day before or after makes little difference; I only highlight it here to demonstrate the extent to which numerous oversights have significantly altered our perception of Field. It throws into question then, how much do we really know about the Irish-born musician as he turns 235?

Extant cameos of Field paint the following pictures: a man who composed only when necessary and it tended to be last-minute; someone who rose to the challenge due to talent; a composer, despite this talent, that had compositional weaknesses which he never overcame due to his care-free nature, personal recognition of which came in the guise of continuous revision; a comedian more interested in alcohol and women than his job; a boaster who rested on his laurels; a renowned pianist who visited but stayed in Russia because of a disagreement with his former master Clementi; and a musical figure whose memory has been kept alive because he was fortunate enough to have ‘created’ the nocturne, and even more fortunate that Chopin is considered his successor in this genre. These are the images that emerge, where not unlike gossip, hearsay is misconstrued for evidence, and biographical detail is attractive; it makes the genius and successful seem more human.

That anecdotal material, primarily centred on Field’s life rather than his music, has gained so much currency in Field studies is perhaps in part because he spent most of his life in Russia, notwithstanding that there is little surviving correspondence from the composer, who doesn’t appear to have kept a diary. Substantial reference to Field in newspapers only comes towards the end of his career, when he returned to Western Europe for a tour, and having been absent from the West for so long–despite his works being published widely throughout Europe–he was deemed an enigmatic figure. It is hardly surprising then that reports on Field would have been approached with a certain curiosity and expectation. So what should we remember about Field on his birthday, and why should we remember it?

Field composed seven piano concerti, which was a very healthy number at this time, and it was the concerto genre for which he was initially known. He also wrote four sonatas, a quintet, and various other short pieces. The widely disseminated editions of Field’s nocturnes suggest that he composed 18, yet only 14 of these were specifically labelled nocturnes by Field. He was one of the most popular pianist/composers in the early nineteenth century and was performing and writing during an important time in the piano’s development. Similar to the multi-tasking musician today, Field was expected to cater for various audiences and although sparse, any surviving letters to and from Field shed light on a composer who had foresight, worked diligently, and responded to the musical market. While he did revise works a lot this had less to do with acknowledgement of so-called compositional weakness–he wrote very much in the style of the day–and more to do with nineteenth-century practice: issues of copyright and awareness of posterity were important factors at this time, and scholars believe that revisions may be attributed to them. Field may have remained in Russia to act as a piano salesman for the Clementi pianos rather than arguing with his old master. In terms of last-minute composing, he was undoubtedly talented, and could’ve been eccentric too, but these weren’t the only two ingredients that got him by; he worked hard!

Image credit: “John Field” by Carl Mayer, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It would be unfair to focus solely on the shadows that have been cast over Field’s reception however; even the positives are not beyond questioning. For example, his accolade ‘inventor of the nocturne’ has long been challenged and could be equally given to one of his contemporaries, Dussek for example, who was writing in this style even before Field. Nevertheless, unlike his contemporaries Field continued to compose nocturnes throughout his career. From this perspective, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to refer to him as the Father of the Nocturne in the same way that Haydn is considered the Father of the Symphony, i.e. Haydn didn’t create the symphony but he did compose a lot of them and contributed greatly to its form.

Oversights are not unique to Field scholarship but somehow issues that are equally pertinent to other composers seem to be teased out in a reasoned manner. Elsewhere, memoirs of those who met Field are cited uncritically despite being highly romanticised and edited. Although we cannot verify or deny them, looking at Field primarily through these lenses is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold. At the same time, Field has not fared too badly considering that many of Field’s contemporaries have been forgotten. Ironically, it is because of unchallenged misconceptions that Field has secured a position in music history as the creator of the nocturne, which in turn has fortunately provided a route into exploring his compositional output and life.

The point at which one should verify and challenge information, and whether Field would have had a very different position in history as a result, brings to mind Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: “human life occurs only once and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”. And so, on 26 July 2017, I am reminded of John Field, his nocturnes and concerti, and how various readings of his many receptions demonstrate first and foremost how diverse music is, but most importantly what we can learn through music on a societal, cultural, national, historical, philosophical, and personal level. Happy Birthday John Field; thank you for these journeys!

Featured Image credit: plaque on a stone monument commemorating Field’s birth at Golden Lane. Majella Boland, used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Colm

    Well done Majella, keep up the good work,hope you don’t give away too many secrets about me??😃

  2. Bengt Hultman

    I think it is good to make j Fields music know. He was Muzio Clementi’s favourite pupil and followed Clementi to Russia.
    Bengt Hultman
    President of the Swedish Clementi society Umeå SWEDEN

  3. Patricia Howard

    A fascinating account which has sent me back to the music. Thank you!

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