John Field: Nocturnes, H. 24-26

performed by John O’Conor

no. 2 and no. 3 

None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.

Franz Liszt’s preface to his edition of Field’s nocturnes, 1859. (English translation by Julius Schuberth, 1859)

In much of the writing for the blog featuring Chopin’s works, I talk about how the man basically invented new forms: the ballade, the preludes, the etudes (that were performance-worthy), and is famous for his work with mazurkas and waltzes, the four scherzos, etc.

However, the credit for a form for which he is almost universally recognized goes not to Chopin, but to an Irishman named John Field. Surprised? Have a listen. You’re welcome.

John Field was born on 5 September 1782 in Dublin, but moved to London at a young age where he studied with Muzio Clementi, who was rather a big deal at the time. As a result of his family’s musical background and his training, Field became a famous and sought-after pianist who toured Europe, eventually visiting and deciding to stay in, of all places, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wiki says that “Although little is known of Field in Russia, he undoubtedly contributed substantially to concerts and teaching, and to the development of the Russian piano school.” The article also calls him “the instigator of the nocturne” rather than a more definitive term like creator or inventor, but qualifying it even more by saying that “there is evidence to suggest that this is a posthumous accolade,” even while the (poor excuse for an) article on the nocturnes themselves says without qualification that they were the first to be written.

In any case, Field wrote 16 nocturnes over a period of 24 years. We shan’t be discussing all 16 of them here, but it’s worth going over the first three, written in 1812. Of Field’s overall “post-London” style, Wikipedia says that”The characteristic texture is that of a chromatically decorated melody over sonorous left hand parts supported by sensitive pedalling.” Confusingly, his bio mentions eighteen nocturnes, not sixteen, but it seems this discrepancy is due to later additions of works that he didn’t originally include in the set.

But in any case, that description should fit pretty well with what you know of the Chopin nocturnes, and it’s a good example of how enormous someone’s influence can be, even if that person isn’t today a household name like everyone thought they would be.

The first nocturne sounds exactly like a nocturne, but not quite as heavily Romantic in nature, yet. For some reference, this is a time when Chopin was learning to walk and talk, and when Beethoven was still active, having begun his eighth symphony, his final violin sonata, and also when he wrote his famous unsterbliche Geliebte letter the same year.

But back to Field. The nocturne doesn’t delve into any contrasting dark, gloomy or ominous passages, and both Field’s composition and O’Conor’s performance display a pristine, ivory delicacy while never for a moment being stodgy or square. It’s made up of simple melodies that trickle and flow, nothing complicated, nothing outrageous, except for a sort of unidentifiable beauty that reminds you to stop and smell the flowers.

The second in C minor is a nice contrast to the first, and while these two are in a major/minor pair, it seems the others are not. Field’s use of the minor key isn’t a tragic one, but brings a spritz of melancholy, a more purply-blue tinge to this nocturne, and it reaches slightly more expressive, richly romantic moments. There’s no formal structure or thematic development here (at least none you need to be aware of), as the music twirls and twinkles in an equally lyrical but more pensive tone.

The third nocturne in A flat major (not included for some reason in O’Conor’s TELARC release of the nocturnes) doesn’t have the undulating, almost nonstop trickling and cascading of notes under a sweet melody that the others instantly show us, but it develops. The bass line presents a simple ostinato-like gesture, and while it might not be the same breathtaking effect, the overall mood of the work is a more deliberately-paced, more spacious work that does build out to a richer texture in the central part of the work, with greater use of deeper bass voices, and (slightly) increasingly intricate rhythms, growing into the kind of nocturne sound that many expect instead of starting that way. It’s also the longest of the first three, at nearly 6 minutes to the three-ish minutes of each of the first two.

Does anything really need to be said about this music? It’s simple, elegant beauty, instantly understandable, iconically Romantic, but the most notable fact about it is that you may have never heard of Field, and given all that luxurious, lyrical nocturne credit to Chopin. Granted, he brought the nocturne to a level of fame and expression that the world has largely decided to remember over Chopin, so I feel Mr. John Field to be a perfect installation in this month’s New November series. There’s a whole stack of nocturnes left to be discovered from Field, and we’ll get to them eventually. In the meantime, stay tuned for more new music in November, some of which, as we have seen, you must certainly know, while others you will almost certainly not. See you soon.

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