John Field’s Life

john-fieldInasmuch as the year 1914 was the centenary of the nocturne (invented by an Irish composer, John Field), it may be of interest to give a short biography of that remarkable virtuoso, especially as no English memoir is as yet accessible. There are monographs in French, Italian, German and Russian, while the latest memoir is also in German, and was presented as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Leipzig by Heinrich Dessauer in 1911.

Let me at once say that all the existing notices of Field – even Dessauer’s book and the notice in the new edition of Grove’s Dictionary – contain no hint of his early triumphs in his native city of Dublin as a prodigy pianist. Recent research has unearthed much new material which, as here summarized, will prove useful to the future biographer of Field.

John Field – the son of Robert Field, of Golden Lane, Dublin – was born on July 26, 1782, and was baptized at St. Werburgh’s Church on September 30 of the same year. His father had “conformed” to the Protestant Church, owing to the fierce penal laws against Catholics, and had set up a fashionable academy as professor of the violin. He was also ripieno violin in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Crow Street, and was one of the original subscribers to the Charitable Musical Society in 1787.

The Fields were certainly a musical family, as the grandfather of the inventor of the nocturne was organist in one of the city churches.

A Busy Childhood

At the age of eight years John Field was a good pianist, his studies having been supervised in true Solomon-like fashion by his father and grandfather and neither of them spared the rod. Indeed, it is alleged that he ran away from home in 1790 in order to avoid the thrashings, but this lacks confirmation. One thing is certain, that at the close of the year 1790 (or early 1791) the precocious child was sent to Tommaso Giordani to receive “finishing lessons,” entailing no small financial sacrifice on the Field household. During the year that Field studied with Giordani he gave evidence of becoming a virtuoso on the piano, and his master decided to give the Dublin people an opportunity of hearing the youthful prodigy at a Rotunda concert.

Field’s debut was at Signor Giordani’s First Spiritual Concert at the Rotunda, Dublin, on Saturday, March 24, 1792, the two attractions being Madame Gautherot (the famous lady violinist) and Master Field. The advertisements announced Field as “a child of eight.” This was merely a “pious fraud” (not yet unknown in advertising circles), as the boy was close on ten years old; but it is probably that he only looked about eight. The piece selected for his debut was “Madame Krumpholt’s difficult Pedal Harp Concerto.” Giordani gave his second Spiritual Concert on Wednesday, April 4, when Magame Gaugherot and Master Field were again the two “stars”. Evidently Field must have proved a great success, because in the advertisements he is described as “the much admired Master Field, a youth of eight years of age.” At the second concert he performed on the grand pianoforte “a new concerto composed by Signor Giordani.” He again appeared at Giordani’s third concert on April 14, and his playing elicited the utmost encomiums. In the following year Field took to composing, and his initial effort was an arrangement of a characteristic old Irish air, Go and Shake Yourself (subsequently published by Clementi & Co., London), the theme of which is herewith given:


Two other arrangements were made by Field, but Field’s efforts in the regions of composition and his nascent powers as a pianist were lost to Dublin in the spring of 1793, when his father – owing to the impoverished condition of the Dublin Theatre Royal – accepted an orchestra engagement at Bath. Two months later the elder Field was offered a post in the Haymarket Theatre Orchestra, and in October of the same year the Field household was transferred to London.

Almost immediately his father apprenticed the boy to Muzio Clementi, who at once recognized Field’s genius.

The fact of Field pere giving a fee of a hundred guineas to Clementi for the apprenticeship of his son represents a heavy sacrifice, and is distinctly to the credit of Robert Field. As early as 1794 Clementi announced the young Irish lad as his pupil, and we find Field performing a sonata of Clementi at Barthelemon’s concert. The fiction of the age was still kept up, and the advertisements described Master Field as “ten years of age.”

Mr. Arthur F. Hill, F.S.A., has an autograph manuscript of a musical fragment composed by Field in 1794. His first published composition was Del Caro’s Hornpipe, with Variations, printed by Broderip in 1797. Twentieth century readers may be interested to see the melody of this hornpipe, which remained popular till early Victorian days:

On February 7, 1799, at a performance for the benefit of Pinto the younger at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, “Master Field played his own concerto for the grand forte piano.”

It may be well to note that Field was kept for several years by Clementi as a hack for “showing” his pianos, and one can well imagine the drudgery experienced by such a rising genius, compelled to strum away daily for the delectation of would be purchasers of pianofortes. Notwithstanding this, Clementi was very proud of his pupil, who not only practiced the pianoforte assiduously, but also studied the violin with G.F. Pinto, who composed a sonata “ascribed to his friend John Field.”

On February 20, 1801, Field played at one of the Oratorio Concerts at Covent Garden Theatre, and created quite a furore by the performance of his own concerto, the melody of the rondo founded on the song, “Since then I’m doomed,” which he had composed before leaving Dublin in 1792, as preciously alluded to.

The firm of Clementi & Co. wrote to Pleyel, of Paris, on December 9, 1801, that they had ready for publication “some very valued manuscripts of Clementi, Dussek, Viotti, Cramer and Field,” and the name ofthe last mentionied is eulogized as being “a pupil of M. Clementi, a very promising genius, and has already become a great favorite in this country both in respect to composition and performance. It is likely you will soon see him in Paris.”

The promised visit to Paris of Clementi and his pupil had to be delayed owing to business engagements, and, in the meantime, Clementi published Field’s Three Sonatas (in A, E-flat and C minor), dedicated to his master. At length – in the early part of August, 1802 – the two pianists set forth for the French capital. Field’s playing of Bach’s Fugues and of pieces by Handel and Clementi took Paris by storm, and he obtained a similar triumph at Vienna and Anspruch.

Triumphs in St. Petersburg

Towards the close of the year 1802, Clementi and Field arrived in St. Petersburg, where Clementi – with true commercial instinct – opened a showroom for the sale of pianos, retaining the services of Field to display the instruments to the best advantage. Under date of December 22, Spohr, in his remarkable autobiography, describes his visit to the music showrooms. He waxes enthusiastic over the superb playing of the young Irishman. Poor Field – at that date twenty years of age and still in an Eton suit, which he had much outgrown – a pale, shy individual, unacquainted with any language English; yet, as Spohr assures us, the moment that he started to play the piano all his gaucheries were ignored and the real artist displayed.

When Clementi left St. Petersburg in the early summer of the year 1803, he left Field behind him as a guest of General Markloffsky, and the young Irishman soon formed a large and aristocratic clientele, being also in much request for concerts. Evidently Clementi sold a grand piano to Field in exchange for certain musical compositions, as appears from a letter written by Clementi to Collard, dated Vienna, April 22, 1807: “Has Field sent you the concerto, the quintet and something more, as I had agreed with him for his grand piano? If not, pray write by Faveryear to him.”

From 1804 to 1807 Field’s services both as a virtuoso and as a teacher were in much request; and he gave numerous concerts which proved highly remunerative. Alas! like so many other artists, he was improvident and lived like a true Bohemian – a life diversified with various love affairs. He soon acquired a mastery of French, German and Russian, and was in high favor in the most select circles. He got petted so much that he became indolent and frivolous, added to which he was very absent-minded and eccentric. To complicate matters, he became infatuated with a young French actress, Mdlle. Percheron, whom he married early in 1808. The marriage ceremony was performed by a clergyman called Syuruk, and an Englishman named Jones acted as best man.

We next hear of Field in 1812, when he and his wife took part in a concert at Moscow on Sunday, March 10, for the benefit of the orchestra of the Imperial Theatre. Four days later they gave a grand concert, tickets of which were to be had “at the residence of Princess Trubetzky, opposite the Evangelical Church.” While in Moscow, Field became very friendly with Steibelt, who was the great star in that city.

The year 1812 is memorable for the composition of a grand Marche Triomphale “en honneur des victoires du General Comte de Witgenstein,” quickly followed by a Premier Divertissement, an Air Russe Varie (duet) and a Fantasia. In the late summer of the year 1814, Field composed the first Three Nocturnes and a pianoforte sonata; and in December of the same year Peters published his Rondo Ecossais (Speed the Plough). In regard to the last mentioned, it is a misnomer to call is Ecossais, as it is genuinely Irish.


Glinka a Pupil of Field

Between the years 1815 and 1819 Field gave numerous concerts in St. Petersburg, and his reputation as a piano teacher was rapidly growing. Among his pupils of this period were Glinka and Mayer – both of whom wrote effusively of their master, both as a virtuoso and a teacher. During this period he published his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Nocturnes, as well as five Piano Concertos, an Orchestral Concerto, a Quintet, two Divertissements, a Polonaise, a Grande Valse (duet), several exercises and an Air Russe.

Early in 1822 (not 1823, as is stated in Grove) Field settled in Moscow for a time and became friendly with Hummel. He realized large sums by his concerts and had an extensive teaching connection. His death was reported on two occasions, first in 1828 and secondly in 1831. On the latter we read as follows:

“The report of the famous John Field’s death at the beginning of the year is unfounded. This great virtuoso on the forte-piano still lives; and, if his love of retirement can be conquered, Europe need not yet renounce the expectation of being gratified by hearing him, but it is with difficultly he can resolve on any exhibition of his powers.”

Towards the close of the year 1831 Field accepted the invitation of the Philharmonic Society of London to play at their concert on February 27, 1832. His paying on that occasion elicited the warmest admiration, especially his rendering of his own Concerto in E Flat.

At the Haydn Centenary on March 31 he played an Andante with Variations; and on May 6 he played at a reception given by Moscheles, where he had the pleasure of meeting Mendelssohn. Field’s visit to London was saddened by the death of his old master, Clementi, who passed away on March 10, and who was accorded a public funeral at Westminster Abbey on March 29, Field being one of the chief mourners.

Field’s reception at Paris in December, 1832, was even more brilliant than that in London; the critics were unanimous in praising his marvelous playing. As is well known, Field did not think very highly of Chopin, whose music he declared to be “un talent de chambre de malade.” The salle of the Conservatoire of Paris on December 25 was crowded to hear the great Irish composer and virtuoso, and Fetis declared his technique as simply astonishing. His concertos and rondos were vehemently applauded. The great critic D’Ortigue wrote of this concert: “His is no school; neither the school of Dussek, nor of Clementi, nor of Steibelt. Field is Field’s; a school of his own. He sits at the piano even as if at his own fireside with no attitudinizing. And surely his music is that of the fairies.” And equally brilliant receptions awaited Field at the Pape Salon on January 20, 1833, and again on February 3.

An Unfortunate End

In the spring and summer of 1833 Field astonished various European centers, including Brussels, Toulouse, Marseilles and Lyons, frequently receiving triple recalls. On September 30 his grand concert at Geneva was a huge success, and a similar triumph was accorded him at Milan in November and December. After his appearance at Florence in 1834 he proceeded to Naples, where he became seriously ill and had to be operated on for fistula. He lay in hospital there for nine months and was reduced to a pitiable condition, accelerated by habits of intemperance. In June, 1835, the timely arrival in Naples of the Rachmanoff family – Russian nobles – rescued Field fro his sad fate, and the Rachmanoffs insisted that he should accompany them back to Moscow.

The last professional appearance of Field was at Vienna, where at the earnest request of Carl Czerny he gave three concerts at the Hof Theatre, on August 8, 11 and 13, delighting the fashionable audience by his beautiful playing. Whilst in Vienna he composed a new concerto and a new nocturne, and towards the close of August he returned to Moscow with the Rachmanoffs. A few months later Field became very ill, and in the first week of 1837 it was evident that the end was at hand. Even in his last moments his old humor did not forsake him, and when dying the following dialog ensued: “Are you a Catholic? – No. Are you a Protestant? – No. Are you a Calvinist? – Not that either,” said Field, “Not a Calvinist, but a pianist!”

Field died on January 11, 1837, and was buried in the Wedensky Kirchhof, Moscow, on the 15th. The following inscription was engraved on his tomb:

John Field Born in Ireland in 1782 Died in Moscow in 1837 Erected to his memory by his grateful friends and scholars.