John Field (1782-1837) was an Irish composer, but spent most of his life in Russia. He was a pupil of Muzio Clementi, and after touring of Russia with him in 1802, Field remained there and earned his living as a pianist in Moscow. Although Chopin is more famous for his piano nocturnes, Field was the first to apply the French title to his lyrical piano pieces. With his compositions, Field influenced both Liszt and Chopin, who were considerably younger. Liszt wrote about Field, proclaiming Field’s charms in piano and composition skills to be gentle and sweet, while poetically describing his light touch as “Aeolian-harp sounds.” Field was also the first to write small character pieces for piano, setting the trend for future Romantic composers.
John Field wrote 18 nocturnes between 1812 and 1835. Although “the Italian term “notturno” appeared as a title in 18th century music, the French use of the term “nocturne” as a genre did not present itself until John Field used it in his lyrical piano pieces in 1812. Reminiscent of the late classic period, Field’s nocturnes did not have a wide emotional range, and the phrase structure remained predictable, as can be seen in the form – Nocturne No. 1 alternates between I and iii for 8 measures before modulating to Bb in measure 20, then primarily alternates with V for another 10 measures. The nocturne is easily identifiable by the broken-chord melody in the left hand, with a cantilena style melody in the right. The extended use of the piano pedal also plays a large role in the composition of nocturnes. In order to imitate an orchestral texture, the bass note was caught by the pedal, and the melody filled in the accompaniment. On early pianos, the pedal only affected the lower half of the piano, and some even had separate mechanisms for each half of the keyboard. This “nocturne texture” was used in most of Field’s nocturnes and Chopin’s as well.
Here is a pdf for Nocturnes 1-8:
I am comparing Field’s Nocturne in Eb Major, No. 1 to Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb Major, Op. 9, No. 2. Although both nocturnes have the arpeggiation and melodic line that signify the nocturne genre, Chopin’s is clearly deeper into the Romantic era. Listening to each, Field’s melody line is simple, and cantilena like. It seems to have a much softer feel, while Chopin’s nocturne exudes the dynamic changes so much more prevalent later in the century.
Chopin: Nocturne in Eb Major, Op. 9, No. 2
When I think of piano music, Chopin and the Romantic era come to mind. It was interesting to discover John Field and find that he played a huge role in the nocturne genre in the late Classic era. The simplicity of these pieces is beautiful, and I will probably purchase them in the near future.
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