Tuesday 23 January 2018

Classical: Playing the Field - the huge impact of one Irish pianist

John Field
John Field

George Hamilton

Considering classical music as an unfolding chain of events, you'd expect all the links to be on show. But as fashions changed, the shifting sands of musical preference propelled some to prominence, while others drifted from view. Without them, though, we wouldn't have got to where we are. You've only to think of Russia. One neglected genius proved key.

Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov were part of a group that wanted their music to reflect their place and didn't just mimic what was going on in western Europe. They took their inspiration from a man called Mikhail Glinka, the first to make a success of writing material that was distinctly Russian.

There's a line from Glinka that goes right back to the heart of Dublin's south inner city. On the corner of Golden Lane and Bride Street, there's a small plaque commemorating the birth nearby in 1782 of John Field, a musician whose influence was far greater than his 21st century profile would suggest.

Music was in the blood. His father was a theatre violinist, his grandfather an organist. John was a child prodigy, making his first public appearance at the age of nine.

The family moved to London to help him on his way. There, his teacher was Muzio Clementi, an Italian virtuoso who'd once played head-to-head in a piano contest with Mozart, which ended in a draw.

Clementi was a composer too, and also a bit of an entrepreneur. This was the time when the harpsichord was being superseded by the piano. Clementi's London publisher also built pianos, and Clementi had bought an interest in the firm.

He went on a sales trip to Europe, and took Field, his star pupil, to demonstrate the instruments. Field's performances were stunning. In St Petersburg, he was encouraged to stay, and that began a long association with Russian music and musicians.

He gave concerts and recitals, he continued composing, and he taught, among others, the aforementioned Glinka. Now he may have only given the youngster three lessons, but Glinka's education continued under another of Field's pupils, so the influence was still there. Field had developed a huge interest in Russian folk songs and dances and this played a part in his own musical development.

Glinka took his lead, and worked on his own style using similar source material. That, in turn, was picked up years later by Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the rest. Any history of Russian classical music will have copious references to the part played by John Field in its evolution.

Field had his influence, too, on a range of composers who rated him highly. Robert Schumann was a great admirer and hints of Field can be traced in Schumann's magnificent piano concerto. Clara, Robert's wife, and the first female concert pianist, included Field's second piano concerto in her repertoire.

Field was also responsible for developing the 'nocturne' - he was the one who gave a name to the short, romantic, single-movement piano pieces that feature dreamy passages of notes scattered across the upper register over simple patterns played out by the left hand. Chopin picked up the form and made it his own, but the idea was all Field's.

There's a wonderful album by the Bavarian pianist Micaela Gelius (Piano Night Pieces, Music Agents Red Label MA505) that showcases Field's music alongside material from other, better remembered, giants of the Romantic era. Glinka, Schumann and Chopin are all there too.

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