Music John Field
by
Majella Boland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0173

Introduction

The perception of John Field (b. 1782–d. 1837) as the father of the piano nocturne genre dominates Field historiography. As a posthumous construction, however, this image of the composer/pianist is misleading. Consequently, the extent of Field’s contribution to 19th-century musical life, and to piano literature, has yet to be truly explored. For example, his piano nocturnes are widely performed, but during his lifetime Field was well known for his piano concerti, of which there are seven. Furthermore, he appeared before London audiences thirty-one times over an eight-year period (1793–1801), and on twenty-five occasions he programmed a concerto; either his First Concerto or a concerto by a contemporary. Field also toured major European capital cities including Paris and Vienna, and, as an apprentice to Muzio Clementi, the foremost businessman in the music industry in the first half of the 19th century, he became adept in this trade; a closer look at Field’s activity as a composer/pianist and teacher/entrepreneur makes clear Clementi’s influence. Yet Field’s contemporary success stands in direct contrast to his posthumous neglect, which has been supported by the large presence of anecdotal material and of uncorroborated reports of the composer as lazy. The disparity between Field’s contemporary and posthumous receptions has created ambiguity in Field scholarship. This is in part due to his national identity—he was born in Dublin, apprenticed in London, and resided in Russia for more than thirty years—and to the dearth of literature on Field’s musical activity in Russia. Consequently, Field historiography tends to orbit reviews of the composer on his second and last tour in western Europe primarily because music journalism had firmly taken hold by this time; this tour was separated from his first by three decades. As a result, these images represent two extremes: first, as one of the most sought-after and promising pianists of the future and, second, as a pianist who was symbolic of an “archaic” school of music, interesting only as a novelty from the past. Despite the ubiquity of this second image, its misinterpretation is palpable; these reviews in fact reflect what was then considered negative changes in 19th-century musical life, where Field epitomized the “old” and “true” virtuoso. This is in part due to the abundance of popular literature on Field that, unlike the scholarly authoritative work on the composer, is widely distributed and easy to acquire. Nevertheless, its pervasiveness should not be confused with authority. Such literature is primarily not supported by extant scholarly work relevant to Field and his musical environment, and it consequently serves to maintain perceptions of Field that have been misinterpreted to the extent that they are now perceived as truisms. Although scholarship concerning Field uniquely is scant, there is a wealth of scholarly work pertaining to Field and to issues in Field historiography, which are included in this bibliography.

General Overviews

The research that has had enduring influence on Field scholarship predates the 1980s. Dessauer 1912 is the first doctoral dissertation on Field in which the general perceptions of the composer that had been circulated in music literature by this time are collated; in addition it provides the first analytical study of Field’s concerti. Branson 1972 demonstrates the extent to which Chopin is indebted to Field, while Piggott 1973 remains the most “up-to-date” biography on the composer. Nikolayev 1973 is not widely distributed, but nevertheless it provides insight to Field’s reception in Russia. The only bibliographical thematic catalog on Field, Hopkinson 1961, has been an invaluable source for scholars. Two recent studies challenge many of these works: Horton 2011 suggests an alternative method for the analysis of Field’s concerti, and Boland 2013 situates both Field and his works in a historical and musical context, thereby reinterpreting what have become staple aspects of Field historiography.

  • Boland, Majella. “John Field in Context: A Reappraisal of the Nocturne and Piano Concerti.” PhD diss., University College Dublin, 2013.

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    An appraisal of literature on Field and his concerti. Context for Field’s formative years. Topical analysis of Field’s First and Seventh Concerti. List of Field’s concerts in London. Field’s connection to the nocturne is exposed. Comprehensive survey of Field scholarship.

  • Branson, David. John Field and Chopin. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972.

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    Assessment of Field’s influence on Chopin. The first part is biographical, and in the second part, emphasis is placed on similarities between both composers’ nocturnes, concerti, and “other works.” A chapter on Hummel features by way of acknowledging that he also exerted influence on Chopin. One of the most cited works in Field scholarship.

  • Dessauer, Heinrich. John Field, sein Leben und sein Werke. Langensalza, Germany: Beyer and Mann, 1912.

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    First PhD dissertation published on Field. Available in scholarly libraries in German only, as well as online. Its approach is primarily biographical. Few musical examples. Sources mostly not referenced. Problematic because it has been quoted with authority. Interesting from the perspective that it represents work on Field in musicology’s infancy. Available online.

  • Handy Southall, Geneva. “John Field’s Piano Concertos: an Analytical and Historical Study.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1966.

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    First study to focus on Field’s concerti. Analysis is primarily descriptive. First biographical detail of Field in English, heavily influenced by Heinrich Dessauer and Louise Fusil; see also Memoirs. Representative of most analyses of Field’s concerti in particular with comparisons erroneously drawn between Mozart and Beethoven. Provides general structure of the concerti. Available in most scholarly libraries through University Microfilms, Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • Hopkinson, Cecil. A Bibliographical Thematic Catalogue of the Works of John Field 1782–1837. London: Harding & Curtis, 1961.

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    Only 350 copies printed, with some available in major scholarly libraries. Very detailed account of the works available and not available to the bibliographer as well as their various editions. One of the most authoritative and comprehensive sources on Field providing significant insight to his compositional practice and to music trade.

  • Horton, Julian. “John Field and the Alternative History of Concerto First-Movement Form.” Music and Letters 92.1 (2011): 43–82.

    DOI: 10.1093/ml/gcq104E-mail Citation »

    Detailed article concerning analyses of the 19th-century piano concerto. Empirical approach, demonstrates the popularity of the concerti by Field and his contemporaries. That analytical frameworks orbit the Mozartian and Beethovenian models is palpable. Problematic issues in analysis that arise from this practice are highlighted. Serves to expose long-held obstacles surrounding Field’s concerti. Available online by subscription.

  • Nikolayev, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. John Field. Translated by Harold M. Cardello. New York: Musical Scope, 1973.

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    English translation of Джон Фильд, first published in 1960. A perspective of Field from Russia. Nikolayev gained access to Russian material that has not been published and that is not available in English. In addition to Cecil Hopkinson’s bibliography, he discloses information about four works unknown to Hopkinson.

  • Piggott, Patrick. The Life and Music of John Field 1782–1837: Creator of the Nocturne. London: Faber & Faber, 1973.

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    Biographical detail primarily supported by anecdotes. Field’s nocturnes are extolled while the piano concerti are considered imperfect. Many sources are not appropriately referenced. Available in most scholarly libraries. Somewhat unreliable, despite being the most recent monograph on Field. One of the most cited works in Field research. Useful general overview.

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