Field and Chopin – Composers of the Week

John FieldTune into BBC Radio 3 this week for Composer of the Week, Chopinfeaturing the music of both Field and Chopin. Weekdays at 12 noon , repeated at 6.30pm.

Or listen again here:

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Of Pianos, Pedals, Pianists – and Tolstoy

In a recent televised interview, the writer Julian Barnes said that of all the pages that were re-written in a novel, the first page was the one that had the most revisions. That seems to apply to the opening of a blogpost too, as I’ve discovered as I’ve sought to encapsulate final thoughts on John Field and his Nocturnes before moving on to other composers.  Each time I attempt to pen my definitive closing remarks, another new fact or lead emerges which unveils yet another layer of fascination, causing many a diversion and yet another abandoned draft. Anyway, here goes – a last attempt at closure.

Clementi-Square-ca-1800_003John Field really was the right man in the right place at the right time. It seems an extraordinary coincidence that the creator of the piano Nocturne spent many formative years demonstrating the instrument in the showrooms of one of the leading makers – Clementi – when the piano was undergoing exciting innovations, both in its action, the compass of its keyboard, and the use of the pedal. [Click here for more about the Clementi piano in the RCM Museum.] Also, the composers Boieldieu and Steibelt were introducing the use of symbols for pedalling into their printed music – and both Boieldieu and then Steibelt lived and worked in St Petersburg, as did Field.  And what would a Nocturne be without the use of the pedal?!

Field’s first Nocturnes were published in 1814. What a perfect name for a piece, a term coined in a language which was not his own by an Irishman transported far from his native Dublin, catapulted into the French-speaking Russian aristocracy. Is there another musical title in the Romantic period which is  so concisely evocative? Perhaps Humoreske, but Nocturne is the title which has caught the imagination of composers from Czerny -with whom Field stayed when visiting Vienna in 1835 – to Samuel Barber, whose Nocturne of 1959 is sub-titled Homage to John Field.

And Camille Pleyel composed a Nocturne à la Field in 1830; his firm supplied pianos to Chopin, who dedicated his Nocturnes Op 9 to Camille Pleyel’s wife. [Pictured, the Pleyel piano used by Chopin in London, 1848.]Pleyel


What of John Field’s legacy? He leaves behind him a title and a genre, but during his lifetime his compositions provided teaching material for the next generation of pianists, used by foremost teachers of the time – including Chopin, who used Field’s nocturnes and concertos as part of his pupils’ repertoire. Field himself taught in both St Petersburg and Moscow -even Glinka had three lessons with him, which he never forgot. That wonderful technique, honed by years  of practice under the stern, watchful gaze of that eminent pedagogue, Clementi; that creamy sound, commented on by all who heard him – Field’s pupils will have absorbed it all, and will have passed it on.

My own teacher in England, Ronald Smith, studied in Paris with Marguerite Long, but also with a Russian emigré pianist, Pierre Kostanov, who I think must have left Russia after the Revolution. Ronald’s pupils all had a diet of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, and studies by another Clementi protégé, Cramer. I wish I’d asked Ronald more about Kostanov. It’s a tantalizing thought – are Ronald’s pupils also beneficiaries of Field’s teaching, several generations later? Perhaps. We’ll never know…

Tolstoy and Landowska

And finally, the last word on Field – by Tolstoy, [pictured, right, with Wanda Landowska,] who, in War and Peace, Book 7, Chapter 10, places John Field and his Nocturnes at the heart of aristocratic Russia.

Dimmler, the house pianist of the Rostov family, is asked to play…

Natasha Rostova  by Elizabeth Bohm‘… Mr. Dimmler, please play my favorite nocturne by Field,” came the old countess’ voice from the drawing room.

Dimmler struck a chord and, turning to Natasha, Nicholas, and Sonya, remarked: “How quiet you young people are!”

“Yes, we’re philosophizing,” said Natasha, glancing round for a moment and then continuing the conversation. They were now discussing dreams.

Dimmler began to play; Natasha went on tiptoe noiselessly to the table, took up a candle, carried it out, and returned, seating herself quietly in her former place. It was dark in the room especially where they were sitting on the sofa, but through the big windows the silvery light of the full moon fell on the floor. Dimmler had finished the piece but still sat softly running his fingers over the strings, evidently uncertain whether to stop or to play something else….’



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Field – Nocturne No 5 in B flat Major

In the warm key of B flat major, a cantabile melody floats serenely above a fluid accompaniment, ornamented with sprays of filigree decoration; an orchestra provides a discreet background.

John Field Nocturne no 5The music is perhaps better known as Field’s fifth Nocturne, which started life as a Serenade, gained an orchestral accompaniment to become the second movement of Field’s third Piano Concerto, and later was renamed as a Nocturne.

And here it is – courtesy IMSLP, in what seems to be the original edition .

The pulse should be felt in two beats per bar; the long phrases need a carefully sculpted line, with elegant tapering of phrase-ends. The chordal section demands balance and control, with a singing 5th finger in the RH.

John field, edited by Liszt

It was Liszt who was asked to edit, and to write an introduction to, the first comprehensive edition of the Nocturnes in 1839  - translated extracts from Liszt’s writings here - and the full edition here  ; another version on IMSLP seems much more heavily edited.  Learning No 5 from Field’s own clear, uncluttered score is the best option – and a good introduction to the Nocturne genre in general.

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Field of Glory?

John FieldYoung, talented Irish lad, pianist, is apprenticed to an Italian piano maker based in London, with whom he travels by coach to St Petersburg. He settles there, demonstrating pianos, performing and gradually making his name, moves to Moscow and builds his career, finds love – and loses it, succumbs to alcohol addiction, gets cancer, returns to England for an operation, gives concerts there and in European cities, spends nine months in hospital in Naples, goes back to Russia via Vienna – eventually dies and is buried in Moscow.

It sounds like a film screenplay synopsis, but it is a thumbnail sketch of the life of John Field, 1782-1837.

That all-embracing pianist/composer/teacher/publisher/businessman Clementi taught him, took him to St Petersburg and used him as an apprentice/pupil in his piano showroom. But in time Clementi left, and Field made his own way as a composer, teacher and performer.

View of St Michael's Castle. St Petersburg, 1801

View of St Michael’s Castle. St Petersburg, 1801

What a thumbnail sketch cannot convey, however, is Field’s larger-than-life character. I used to have an idea of him in my mind as a rather quiet personality; a false impression based on the one piece of his which I knew. Which was, of course, a Nocturne – this one -

Not so – Patrick Piggott’s admirable book,  The Life and Music of John Field, 1782-1837, Creator of the Nocturne, available here, tells Field’s story with grace and charm. And it is fascinating tale, so diverting, and so full of places such as London, St Petersburg, Moscow and Paris, and of names such as Spohr, Hummel, Moscheles, Cramer, Chopin and Mendelssohn – that, to me, Field has now bounded off the page, becoming a colourful, three-dimensional figure, surrounded by friends, rivals, a wife, a mistress and two sons, rather than a black-and-white, flat, still, solitary image.

But I digress. I’m supposed to be writing about music, and, as ever, the people who compose it gradually come to life, and fight for centre stage. Back to the Nocturne in my next post …

View of Nikolskaya tower and gates of Moscow Kremlin (right) and the moat in place of present-day graveyard near Kremlin Wall and (part of) Red Square. The moat was filled and the tower was built up in Gothic style in 1800s

View of Nikolskaya tower and gates of Moscow Kremlin (right) and the moat in place of present-day graveyard near Kremlin Wall and (part of) Red Square. The moat was filled and the tower was built up in Gothic style in 1800s.

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Nocturne – A Little Night Music


If a musical quiz were to pose the question: ‘What type of musical composition links the composers Czerny, Fauré and Britten?’, one might toy with the idea of Etude as an answer, or perhaps Prelude, or even Opera, if we allow Czerny’s operatic transcriptions. Add in Chopin and John Field to the composers, and the answer narrows – to Nocturne. John Field is the name we all associate with the Nocturne; in fact one wonders if he has a wider claim to fame than the gift of that title to music. He does, and another blogpost will explore his legacy further.

But for now, as we celebrate New Year on this the 1st January 2014, allow me to introduce this year’s blogpost theme – Nocturne. I hope to look at Nocturnes from Field and Chopin to Fauré and beyond, and also to investigate music with nocturnal associations, from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, to Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Night Pieces’. And Czerny’s Nocturnes, yes, will not be forgotten.

I look forward to your company!

Photograph by Joshu Shund.

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Open you the East Door and let the New Year in

And so we come to the end of 2013. In 2011, Liszt had the last word on my blog; in 2012 it was Debussy.

This year it is Britten. If you are reading this in private, or have some headphones, do click on ‘play’ on the video above as you read …

The words of the New Year Carol were included in an anthology of poems for children, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, edited by Walter de la Mare, in 1931. Britten set the words to music in 1934 as part of  his Op 7 songs, Friday Afternoons. The 1967 Decca recording features Britten conducting the choir of Downside School, Purley, available to download here.

Here we bring new water from the well so clear,
For to worship God with, this happy New Year.
Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew, the water and the wine,
The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine.

Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her toe;
Open you the West Door and turn the Old Year go.
Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew, the water and the wine,
The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine.

 Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her chin;
Open you the East Door and let the New Year in.
Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew, the water and the wine,
The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine.

Also known as the ‘Levy-dew’, the rhyme refers to an old custom of sprinkling people, and the doors of houses, with water freshly drawn from a well at New Year. But whatever the origin of the words, there is something comforting in the imagery of opening the West Door to turn the Old Year out, and opening the East Door to let the New Year in.

Thank you, dear Reader, for your company this year, as we explored Death in Venice, taking in music related to Wagner and Verdi, Britten, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and Alkan. My best wishes to you, wherever you are, as you open the West Door to let 2013 go – and open the East Door to let 2014 in.

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‘He has died with much music still in him…’


While sorting out some files recently, I came across a single page from the Arts section of The Sunday Telegraph, dated 13 February, 1994. There were reviews of exhibitions by two artists: Claude, and John Lessore, a review of Marina Warner’s Reith lectures heard on radio, and a review of  ‘Curse of the Werewolf”, and other plays, in the Theatre section.

Lutoslawski meets BoulangerThe Music section, however, written by Michael Kennedy, began thus: ‘It has been a sad week for the world of music. It has lost … two fine conductors in Norman Del Mar and Rudolf Schwartz, and a great composer in Witold Lutoslawski.’ And here we are in 2013, nearly 20 years later, commemorating the centenary of Lutoslawski’s birth.

Below, Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire perform Lutoslawski’s Variation on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos.

Michael Kennedy’s tribute to Lutoslawski is so well written, and so comprehensive, that it bears re-reading. So here is it…

‘When his Fourth, and alas now last, Symphony had its first London performance last summer, I wrote here that it was an outstanding example of the present-day survival of the art and craft of composition. That was true of all his music – even the look of his scores betokened a fastidious care for the quality, balancing and placing of each note. 

Although he had more than enough excuse for his music to be filled with an emotional subtext – a father executed by the Russians, a brother who died in the Gulag Archipelago – there is nothing of nuclear-age angst in it, not any recourse to bogus religiosity. He just wrote music, developing his highly individual style from the impressionistic yet crystal-clear tradition of Debussy, Ravel and Bartok.

I do not mean to suggest that his music lacks emotion, far from it, but it is an emotion generated entirely from thematic and harmonic sources and a dramatic sense of structure. It has a rigorous inner discipline typical of the man who, while composing works which satisfied (to some extent) the ”formalistic” demands of Communism after his First Symphony was banned, secretly developed his own system of 12-note harmonic chords, and composed the Funeral Music and Second Symphony ready for a day when a less rigid officialdom controlled Poland’s art.

Nor should it be thought that the earlier works are dross, composed mainly to placate the bureaucrats. The Concerto for Orchestra of 1950-54, based on folk song, is a magnificent piece which has kept its place in the repertory  alongside important later scores such as Livre, Mi-Parti, the concertos and the Symphonies Nos 3 and 4.

His principal concession to avant-garde tendencies was his use, as in Venetian Games (1961), of ”chance” or aleatoric passages where performers are instructed to improvise. But in Lutoslawski’s scores these episodes are never a free-for-all. They are strictly controlled, like everything else.

In recent works, such as the Piano Concerto, the adorable song-cycle, Chantefables et Chantefleurs (1990) and the last symphony, the melodic element is more obvious, leading some commentators to detect a more lyrical, softer approach. But the lyricism was always there. The last period was merely an intensification of an integral aspect of his style.

Lutoslawski as a conductorHe has died with much music still in him, but what he has left will, I believe, be increasingly cherished.’

Hear, hear.

Following this blog’s 2013 Venetian theme, for further reading re Lutoslawski’s Venetian Games, premiered at La Fenice, click here for excellent notes by Michael O’Brien describing the background, etc -

‘The title Venetian Games pays homage to both Venice, the city of its premiere, and to the freedom of play and interpretation which occurs during performance. Many details of sound realization are left to chance. However, unlike John Cage’s indeterminate works, open form is not a predominant feature in Venetian Games. Instead, a more formal organization prevails. For a successful realization of the work, all elements of chance must yield to Lutosławski’s structural framework …’

… and Adrian Thomas’ article here which features excerpts from the score.

And below is a recording -



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