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John Field and his piano concertos

John Field (July 26, 1782 [?]–January 23, 1837) was an Irish pianist, composer, and teacher, who was born at Dublin, Ireland, into a musical family in 1782, the eldest son of Irish parents who were members of the Church of Ireland. He was baptized September 5, 1782, but is believed to have been born as early as July 26. Field received his early education in Dublin. His father, Robert Field, earned his living by playing the violin in Dublin theatres. Field first studied the piano under his grandfather, also named John Field, who was a professional organist, and later under Tommaso Giordani. Young John made his debut at the age of nine, a performance that was well-received, on March 24, 1792, in Dublin.

By late 1793 the Fields moved to London, where the young pianist started studying with Muzio Clementi. This arrangement was made possible by Field’s father, who was perhaps able to secure the apprenticeship through Giordani, who knew Clementi. Field continued giving public performances and soon became famous in London. Around 1795 his performance of a Dussek piano concerto was praised by Haydn. Field continued his studies with Clementi, also helping the Italian with the making and selling of instruments. He also took up violin playing, which he studied under J.P. Solomon. His first published compositions were issued by Clementi in 1795; the first historically important work, the Piano Concerto No. 1, H 27, was premiered by the composer in London on February 7, 1799. Field’s first official opus was a set of three piano sonatas published by and dedicated to Clementi in 1801.

In the summer of 1802, Field and Clementi left London and went to Paris on business. They soon travelled to Vienna, where Field took a brief course in counterpoint under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, and in early winter arrived in Saint Petersburg. Field was inclined to stay, impressed by the artistic life of the city. Clementi left in June 1803, but not before securing Field a teaching post in Narva and “appointing” the young man as his deputy, so that Field would receive similarly high fees. After Clementi’s departure, Field had a busy concert season, eventually performing at the newly founded Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society and from about 1804 was particularly active in Russia. In 1805 Field embarked on a concert tour of the Baltic states, staying in Saint Petersburg during the summer. The following year he gave his first concert in Moscow. Clementi arranged the publication of some of Field’s old works in Russia in late 1806.

Field returned to Moscow in April 1807. Up to 1808 almost all publications of Field’s music were reissues of old works. In 1808–9 he finally began publishing newly composed music, starting with piano variations on Russian folksongs: and in 1810 he married Adelaide Percheron, a French pianist and former pupil. In 1811 the composer returned to Saint Petersburg. He spent the next decade of his life here, more productive than ever before, publishing numerous new pieces and producing corrected editions of old ones. Field and his wife had a son, Adrien, in 1819 who followed his father’s steps and became a pianist. By 1819 Field was sufficiently wealthy to be able to refuse the position of court pianist that was offered to him. In 1821 Field revisited Moscow on business, where he and his wife gave a series of concerts in the city. Field stayed in Moscow and continued performing and publishing his music. In 1822 he met Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the two collaborated on a performance of Hummel’s Sonata for Piano 4-Hands, Op. 92.

Partly as a result of his extravagant lifestyle, Field’s health began deteriorating by the mid-1820s. From about 1823 his concert appearances started decreasing; by the late 1820s he was suffering from rectal cancer. Field left for London to seek medical attention. He arrived in September 1831 and, after an operation, gave concerts there and in Manchester. He stayed in England for some time, meeting distinguished figures such as Mendelssohn and Moscheles. In March 1832 his former teacher and friend Clementi died, and Field acted as pallbearer at his funeral. On Christmas Day 1832 Field was in Paris, performing his seventh piano concerto. After a series of concerts in various European cities, Field spent nine months (1834–5) in a Naples hospital. He briefly stayed with Carl Czerny in Vienna, where he gave three recitals, and then returned to Moscow with his son Adrien. He gave his last concert in March 1836 and died in Moscow almost a year later, on January 23, 1837, from pneumonia.

Field was very highly regarded by his contemporaries and his playing and compositions influenced many major composers, including Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt. He is best known today for originating the piano nocturne, a form later made famous by Chopin, as well as for his substantial contribution, through concerts and teaching, to the development of the Russian piano school. Field became best known for his post-London style, probably developed in Moscow around 1807. The characteristic texture is that of a chromatically decorated melody over sonorous left hand parts supported by sensitive pedalling. Field also had an affinity for ostinato patterns and pedal points, rather unusual for the prevailing styles of the day. Entirely representative of these traits are Field’s piano pieces. These works were some of the most influential music of the early Romantic period: they do not adhere to a strict formal scheme (such as the sonata form), and they create a mood without text or program. Similarly influential were Field’s early piano concertos, which occupy a central place in the development of the genre in the 19th century. Field’s music is arranged according to Hopkinson numbers, introduced in the 1961 catalogue by Cecil Hopkinson.

The following works by John Field are included in my collection:

Piano Concerto No. 1 in EbM, H. 27 (1814).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in AbM, H. 31 (1816).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in EbM, H. 32 (1816).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in EbM, H. 28 (1814).


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