Who created the nocturne? Is it Polish or Irish?

A Feature by: Peter Kiernan,

Tinteán Committee Member

The Index of my Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition ( 1898) has an entry : ‘ Field, John, English musical composer and pianist, Vol. IX,p.141’  All right, that was over one hundred years ago but that is not the only problem with this entry. I wish to establish, once and for all, the right of John Field to be credited with the invention and naming of the nocturne. Would it not be true to say that that form of musical composition is attributed, by the general public today, to the genius of Frédéric Chopin alone ?

Born in Dublin in 1782, to a musical family; both Field’s father and grandfather were established professional musicians, so it was no surprise when 10 year old John performed in public with great success on the piano in a concert in Dublin. His ambitious father adopted the role of a Leopold Mozart and took his precocious son to London to place him in the care of the famous Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832). The young student worked hard, flourished and became the leading performer and demonstrator for the Clementi piano manufacturing business, giving  recitals which were acclaimed and also taking up composition.

At seventeen he wrote his first piano concerto and published three piano sonatas in 1801.  Clementi then took his rising young star to Paris to show him off in that cultural centre where the young  virtuoso conquered all and in the same vein to Vienna and finally St Petersburg,  In 1803, Clementi left Russia to return home but Field elected to stay behind in an environment  he found so fascinating and seductive. He was a true Bohemian and became the toast of the burgeoning St Petersburg  salon life, privileged Russian society at that time revelling in and absorbing the sophistication and richness of the French and Italian cultures. But above all, his pianistic virtuosity and polished presentation took Russia by storm.

His professional success assured, Field enjoyed a handsome and profitable life-style. He was very handsome and was feted by hostesses and female admirers, and in due course he married the beautiful Mlle Percheron in 1810. After a triumphant tour of major Russian cities he returned to St Petersburg in 1812 (thus avoiding the destruction and trauma that befell Moscow in Napoleon’s ‘conquest’ of that capital)  and published his first three Nocturnes. He decided on that title only after much careful thought and deliberation, but of course the nocturnes were an immediate success. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849 ) at that time was but a baby and later came to appreciate the Irishman’s work, teaching his own pupils Field’s Nocturnes and concertos. Chopin composed his first Nocturne in1833.

But John Field’s  life took an ominous turn: his marriage failed; he continued in his undisciplined and promiscuous ways; he took to drinking heavily and stopped composing.   Mlle Charpentier bore his son Adrien and he left St Petersburg to take up residence in Moscow.  He contracted cancer but still set off on an extended tour of the major musical centres but this time had only mixed success. He sought treatment in London and was reunited with his mother there for several months. In 1835 he returned to Moscow, ceased performing and teaching but continued composing his beloved Nocturnes  and  died in 1837.

John Field’s Nocturnes were Romantic in the extreme and required a smooth, gliding, cantabile touch it was said. They needed a wide-spread left hand  and provided a simple legato melodic line in the right. In his  time, Field was a precursor to the then developing heavier virtuosic  style of performance on the piano which came to use the rapid development of the instrument itself to dramatic effect. He left a substantial body of work including seven piano Concertos, Sonatas, Fantasias and sets of Variations, Chamber Music and some songs.

However, Field’s eighteen nocturnes have assured the inclusion of his name in the list of significant classical composers and for those, together with the twenty one Nocturnes of Chopin, we are blessed and deeply enriched indeed.


Plaque to John Field in Dublin

Field’s contribution to Irish musical history and his claim to be the originator of the nocturne  have not been forgotten in his native land with a memorial to him in the Dublin church where he was baptised.  His musical contributions are well known to Irish music lovers.

The late Seamus Heaney closed his affectionate  poetic tribute to Field, succinctly and warmly  :

“Knowing technique expendable and still

Dissipating melody, sinking

Your reputation like champagne in Moscow

Under those somnolent nocturnes of snow “.