Entertainment Music

Friday 19 October 2018

The musical match for football's World Cup

Innovator: Irishman John Field wowed audiences in Russia
Innovator: Irishman John Field wowed audiences in Russia

George Hamilton

I've been packing my bags for Russia and thinking of the chance delights that might await me away from the razzamatazz of the World Cup. The one good thing about a major international event is that the boffins tend to get the internet access right, so the radio show will continue uninterrupted.

I was thinking about music and Russia, and how much that vast country has given to the classical canon.

Tchaikovsky springs immediately to mind, He was the big beast, the one who covered all the bases. So many sparkling melodies from his ballet music - Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. So much excitement from the great concertos.

So much drama from the operas, like Eugene Onegin. So much passion from the six symphonies that he wrought from the depths of his soul.

The Russian composers who emerged towards the end of the Romantic era knew how to write a tune. Rachmaninoff, a master melodist whose range extended from the four breathtaking piano concertos he crafted to the ethereally beautiful Vespers.

Borodin, who created in his quartets a sumptuous carpet of sound that would blossom into a 1950s musical called Kismet, which stitched romantic lyrics to his songs for strings.

And, of course, Mikhail Glinka, the one who led the way out of a dependence on the western European tradition and into something that was specifically Russian.

The imperial court took its lead from what was in vogue elsewhere. French was what was spoken, the local tongue too coarse for intelligent discourse. The same applied across the arts. To be any good, it had to come from elsewhere.

Glinka broke that mould with his Kamarinskaya, an orchestral fantasy based entirely on indigenous Russian material. Tchaikovsky described Kamarinskaya as the acorn that gave birth to the great oak that Russia's music would become.

John Field came into my head. He was another Irishman who headed for Russia. In his case, it was as a piano salesman, for want of a better description.

Born in Dublin in 1782, he grew up in England. The move there brought him under the wing of Muzio Clementi, who was a sought-after teacher, but had several strings to his bow.

Selling musical instruments was one of them, so when he realised how talented Field was, he took him on the payroll, to demonstrate the keyboards he was trying to sell.

Clementi had big ambitions. He took John Field with him as he set off on a sales drive across Europe.

They reached St Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital. The locals loved the young Irishman - he was only just turning 21 - and raved about how he played.

Field felt he'd landed in heaven. He persuaded Clementi to let him stay, and that was the beginning of a love affair with Russia.

He was a prolific composer. The nocturne, a gentle piano solo brought to its zenith by Chopin, is generally accepted as being John Field's invention.

He was a brilliant performer, as well, and an innovator to boot. It was John Field who was the pianist credited with developing the use of the sustaining pedal.

He died in Moscow in 1837, aged 54, leaving a legacy of sumptuous music commemorated in the recital space in the National Concert Hall that's known as the John Field Room.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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