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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

The Irish Connection - a little night musing -



John Field's reputation as 'creator of the nocturne' (character-pieces evolved historically from the late 18th century pastorale genre of the London piano school) needs no reminding. His first set of three, widely circulated and reprinted throughout post-Napoleonic Europe, appeared from CF Peters of Leipzig in the autumn of 1814 (Brahms owning a copy of this edition).

Liszt edited various of them at different dates, beginning with Nos 1-6 engraved by Schuberth of Leipzig in November 1850. His perfumed paen in praise of their world (originally in French, later in German [1859], then English [c 1862-63, translated by Julius Schuberth]) is a quintessential period-puff: 'Are not [Field's] Nocturnes half-waking dreams, in a night without gloom, like the summer nights in St Petersburg, whose return he so often saw? - nights in a drapery of white veils that hide nothing from the eye, but only cover all objects with a light mist, like the dull white of a silver crape. A secret harmony dispels the apparent disparity between nocturnal shades and the clear brilliancy of day; and we experience no suprise, so fully does the vagueness of the images let us feel, that they live and move only in the dreamy imagination of the poet, and not in waking reality.'

To compare Chopin's twenty-one essays in the form with Field's seventeen odd (Le Midi, a cheerful E major rondo - No 12 or 18 depending on edition - isn't a nocturne in the usual understanding) has been the fate of both for more than 150 years. Liszt considered Chopin's 'strange and foreign effects' to supplant the Irishman's 'shy, serenely tender emotions': 'Only one genius possessed himself of this style, lending to it all the movement and ardour of which it was susceptible, yet preserving all its tenderness and the poising flight of its aspirations. Filling the entire scope of elegiac sentiment, and colouring his reveries with the profound sadness for which Youth found some chords of so dolorous vibration, Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they often give rise. His flight is loftier, though his wing be more wounded: and his very suaveness grows heart-rendering, so thinly does it veil his despairful anguish ... Their closer kinship to sorrow than those of Field renders them the more strongly marked; their poetry is more sombre and fascinating; they ravish us more, but are less reposeful, and thus permit us to return with pleasure to those pearly shells [Field's] that open, far from the tempests and the immensities of the Ocean, beside some murmuring spring shaded by the palms of a happy oasis which makes us forget the existence of the desert.'

For Ludwig Rellstab (according to von Lenz the German critic responsible for Moonlight-ing Beethoven's C sharp minor Sonata) adulating one to the damnation of the other was the only reception possible - in this case the Nocturnes Op 9 dedicated to Madame Camille Pleyel - Marie la belle: 'where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field shrugs his shoulders, Chopin twists his whole body ['Herr Chopin macht einen Katzenbuckel': 'arches his back like a cat' in the Slonimsky translation, 1953]; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of cayenne pepper... In short, if one holds Field's charming romances before a distorting, concave mirror, so that every delicate impression becomes a coarse one, one gets Chopin's work. We implore Mr Chopin to return to nature' (Iris, A weekly periodical for 'sophisticated readers,' Berlin August 2nd 1833).

Chopin heard Field play his C minor Seventh Concerto (with its boldly innovative first movement G major lento interlude, forerunner of his own same-key Andante spianato Op 22 [published independently as Nocturne No 12, December 1834]) at the Paris Conservatoire, Christmas Day 1832 (the first complete performance). By then, however, the once great pianist, nearing the end of a dissipated, alcholic, womanising life, was significantly beyond his prime. An audience comprised largely of the best keyboard players Paris had to offer gave him a mixed reception.

Field dismissed Chopin as 'un talent de chambre de malade,' 'nothing but [a writer of] mazurkas.' What Chopin thought of him, beyond anticipating his visit (letter to Ferdinand Hiller, August 2nd 1832), we don't know. But according to his friend Eduard Wolff he apparently found 'no speed, no elegance' in his playing, considering him 'incapable of executing difficulties: in a word, feeble.' (Liszt likewise thought him 'sleepy' and 'lacking in vitality.')

Copyright © Ates Orga, October 22nd 1999 


For the publication history of Field's Nocturnes and the complexities surrounding Liszt's various editions see Cecil Hopkinson, A Bibliographical Thematic Catalogue of the works of John Field 1782-1837 (London 1961, printed for the author). The Nocturnes are discussed at length in Patrick Piggott, The Life & Music of John Field 1782-1837: Creator of the Nocturne (London 1973). David Branson, John Field and Chopin (London 1972), is an interesting study in comparative musico-archaeology.

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