John Field: Ireland’s Forgotten Composer
On the 26th of July 1782, Dublin would contribute its own renowned composer to the classical music narrative with the birth of John Field. This was a time of great shifts in the world - the American Revolution had recently succeeded, and the French Revolution was just around the corner. Culturally, music and the arts began to move away from the Classical age of the 1700s. Mozart’s career as the definitive composer in Vienna was in full swing, while Beethoven, who would catapult music into the Romantic era, was beginning to make stirrings in Bonn. On this day, John Field was born on Golden Lane, a small inconspicuous road in the shadow of nearby St Patricks Cathedral. While unknown to most musicians and Irish people today, Field would have an unprecedented impact on the new romantic style of music.
Field was born into a musical family. His father made a living playing violin in local theatres, and John himself learned the piano from his namesake organist grandfather. After a well-received debut performance at just nine years old, he moved to London a few years later to study with Muzio Clementi. Field’s reputation as a performer would not be diminished by the move, where both local press and other musicians in the city would laud him with praise, including even Haydn himself. Now thirteen years old, Field’s first publications would be released (under Clementi’s name) and in 1799 at the age of sixteen, he achieved what was then considered to be the most esteemed accomplishment for a composer of the age, his first concerto.
Clementi and Field soon set out for Paris, travelling on to Vienna and St Petersburg. In the latter, Field found himself in love with the artistically enriched city, electing to stay while Clementi returned to England. His time in Moscow proved to be the most productive and noteworthy era of Field’s life. While in Russia, Field embarked on multiple concert tours, releasing his most mature work. This was also the most fruitful period of his career, releasing the most in sheer quantity. All the while, Field had started a family and was acting as a salesman for Clementi’s piano business. At one point, he was offered the position of the Tsar’s court pianist but ultimately declined - he had no need for the money.
It was in Russia that Field distinguished himself as one of the first true virtuosic pianists. He would push the instrument to its limits, pioneering the sustain pedal as the first composer to prescribe it in his. Prior to this, sustain pedals were used sparingly and at the pianists’ own inclination, Field made it a centrepiece of his music. This contributed greatly to his most famous achievement, the development of the nocturne. Nocturnes are a gentle, intimate, and profoundly romantic alternative to the booming symphonies or concertos of the era. Made most popular by Chopin, who would go on to write the most, Field was actually the designer of its original format. In doing so, he would play an enormous role in shaping the Russian school of music as well as the entire Romantic era itself. The Russian school played an invaluable role as an area of Europe mostly untouched by the new era of factories, coal, and soot, where nature and emotion were able to flourish in the arts. His use of harmony and mood can be both chaotic and turbulent yet also serene and simple; this would similarly influence those around him, setting the scene for the romantic style of emotional volatility.
Field’s extravagant lifestyle, as well as the onset of cancer, would begin to influence the trajectory of his careers. After returning to England for Clementi’s funeral as a pallbearer, Field played a series of concerts in Vienna, Manchester, and Paris to mixed reactions. He returned to Moscow after a stint in a Naples hospital thanks to his Russian patrons, where he died at the age of 55.
Today, Field is remembered in Ireland by a plaque on the corner with St Patrick’s Park on Golden Lane, the same road he spent his formative years on. To most in Ireland, he is unknown. Despite the many achievements of his lifetime in influencing the entire field of romantic music, Field is known today to music historians only despite his indisputable title of Ireland’s most influential composer. When asked for his religion on his deathbed by an English cleric, hesitant to give last rites to someone who refused to profess to be a Christian, he responded: “I am not a Calvinist, but a Claveciniste” – the French for harpsichordist. Even in his final moments, he never lost his vigour for music or life.
By Iain Clowes – Music Writer