It was Chopin who mastered the nocturne genre – long, singing melodies that unfold over broken-chord accompaniment – but it was the Irish composer John Field who must be given credit for creating this style of piano composition.
Field was born in Dublin in 1782, the eldest son of Robert Field, a theatre violinist, who taught John piano as a child. Field became a child prodigy of sorts, whose playing was “really an astonishing performance by such a child, and had a precision and execution far beyond what could have been expected”, as reported by The Dublin Evening Post in 1792. Haydn heard him play in 1794, writing in his diary: “Field a young boy, which plays the piano-forte extremely well“.
In the 1790s, Field studied under Muzio Clementi, also serving as a salesman and demonstrator for Clementi’s piano warehouse. Field settled in Russia in 1803, and over the next 30 years played throughout Europe with great success.
Although awareness of Field began to fade in the 20th century, a fellow Irishman (and a fellow John!) has brought his music back into the limelight.
Irish pianist John O’Conor has championed the works of Field and has sparked a mini-renaissance of his work. O’Conor was born in Dublin in 1947 and has recorded most of Field’s major works, including the complete Concertos, Sonatas and Nocturnes. His recording of 15 of Field’s Nocturnes were on Billboard‘s classical charts for several weeks – and introduced Field’s work to many new listeners.
Field’s Nocturne no. 8, performed by John O’Conor: