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Meet John Field, Nocturne Pioneer

Irish Countryside
Angel Almansa via Flickr
Irish Countryside

One of the most melodious voices in classical music comes from Ireland, so spend St. Patrick’s Day season with this cherished set of solo piano works!

Irish musicians have graced us in every music genre, from the poignant alternative rock of The Cranberries to those catchy, timeless traditional dances. And where would we Bostonians be without our Dropkick Murphys?

But what about classical music? There's a small collection of Irish classical composers (see Laura Carlo's blog post about some of them!); the tiny island ended up with far fewer composers than, say, France, Austria, and Germany during that era. But there is at least one Irish fellow you should know about – and his tunes deserve to be played at full volume all week long.

John Field was born in Dublin in 1782, at the height of Mozart’s reign of popularity. After years of musical homeschooling, he moved to London to study with Muzio Clementi, paying for lessons through piano demonstrations and sales. He settled in Russia when he was 21 and ended up making quite a name for himself throughout Europe as a composer, pianist, and teacher.

Field’s most popular and enduring works, by far, are his set of eighteen* nocturnes for solo piano; he’s credited as the creator of the nocturne genre. If you’re a fan of Chopin’s piano nocturnes, you’re going to love these too. Written decades before Chopin’s, they use a more simplistic harmonic grammar, so the result is an incredibly pastoral and honest piece of music with a delicate melody.

Now, outside of work, in my “civilian” life, I’m commonly asked about starting places for music lovers who want to dive into the world of classical music. Field's Nocturnes are a perfect starting point: they’re easy to listen to, it’s just one musician playing so it's not too dense, they’re incredibly relaxing, and each of them is short – so you can listen to as many or as few as you want in one sitting.

Given that it is St. Patrick’s Day week, practically a state holiday here in Massachusetts, it’s the perfect time to introduce that ambitious classical music seeker to this set of works. My favorite recording is that of fellow Irishman John O’Conor:

So, crank these up this week, and whisk yourself away to the bustling streets of Dublin for a few minutes. After this week goes by, keep these pieces close still, because warm weather is on the way, and there really isn’t a better set of works to listen to while walking outside, sitting in a sunny spot in the park, or cracking open a book on the hammock – maybe with a Guinness in hand.

* There are eighteen officially-catalogued nocturnes, some having multiple versions, not to mention posthumous discoveries, misattributions, and the general fallibility of early 19th-century music cataloguing.

For more of Field’s Nocturnes, check out our 2016 CD of the Week feature on Elizabeth Joy Roe’sJohn Field: Complete Nocturnes.


Colin Brumley is the Music Director for CRB.