Early Romanticism : the solo piano music of John Field and others


John Field (1782-1837) was an Irish pianist, composer, and teacher.  He was born in Dublin into a musical family, and received his early education there, in particular with the immigrant Tommaso Giordani. The Fields soon moved to London, where Field studied under Muzio Clementi. Field was very highly regarded by his contemporaries and his playing and compositions influenced many major composers, including Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt. (Piggott, Patrick. 1973. The Life and Music of John Field, 1782–1837, Creator of the Nocturne. University of California Press.)

field_chopinField was among the first wave of composers who exhibited the new way of thinking which informed not only art, but ideas about the world at large.  In the wake of the Enlightenment, and the idea of an objective truth, thought of as “The Truth”, which could only be arrived at through a rational process of observation and deductive reasoning.   The generation after the French Revolution began to doubt the efficacy of the idea of objective truth after witnessing the abuses perpetrated by the “enlightened” shortly after the success of the revolution.  As a consequence, new ideas about truth, a truth more subjective and dynamic, began to blossom.

One of the hallmarks of the Romantic era was the idea of the uniqueness of the individual and centrality of his world view, which gave way to the idea of a personal truth.  Among composers this began to be expressed in more fluid forms, improvisatory, almost free-form, and designed to offer the audience a peek into the private world of the artist, a kind of private-public music.

Field is credited with being the originator of the nocturne, i.e. night music, which was music ideally performed by someone alone in their room, for their own enjoyment, and which might express their deepest felt emotions.  Often melancholic, but not limited to that feeling, they could also be effervescent or nostalgic.

The characteristic texture is that of a chromatically decorated melody over sonorous left hand parts supported by sensitive pedaling. Field also had an affinity for ostinato patterns and pedal points, rather unusual for the prevailing styles of the day. Entirely representative of these traits are Field’s eighteen nocturnes and associated pieces such as Andante inedit, H 64. These works were some of the most influential music of the early Romantic period: they do not adhere to a strict formal scheme (such as the sonata form), and they create a mood without text or program. These pieces were admired by Frédéric Chopin, who subsequently made the piano nocturne famous, and Franz Liszt, who published an edition of the nocturnes based on rare Russian sources that incorporated late revisions by Field. Liszt’s preface to the said edition was an extensive eulogy for Field and his nocturnes.

None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.  (Preface to: John Field – 18 Nocturnes, edited by Franz Liszt. Leipzig: J. Schuberth & Co., n.d. Edition Schuberth No.140; various plate numbers. 1859.)

Along with Field two other composers deserve to be mentioned, Jan Latislav Dussek and Václav Tomášek.

Dussek wrote numerous solo piano works, including 34 Piano Sonatas as well as a number of programmatic compositions. His The Sufferings of the Queen of France (composed in 1793, C 98), for example, is an episodic account of Marie Antoinette with interpolated texts relating to the Queen’s misfortunes, including her sorrow at being separated from her children and her final moments on the scaffold before the guillotine.

Tomášek wrote a good deal for the piano and became a forerunner of the lyric piano piece which later reached its apogee in the works of Schubert and Chopin. At first he remained loyal to the Classical style, but later was influenced by the newly born Romanticism.  He created a form which he called ecologues, which were almost stream of consciousness piano solos.  He also wrote rhapsodies and dithyrambs.

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