Nocturnes: from John Field to Samuel Barber and beyond

Any mention of Nocturne usually conjures up the names of Chopin or even Liszt, but seldom that of John Field, in the mind of many. Yet it was Field who plausibly invented the nocturne in its romantic embodiment as we know today, pioneered this new musical form and gave the name “nocturne” to these short, lyrical and evocative solo piano pieces with popular appeal which so impressed and inspired many other pianists and composers since then.




Chopin Nocturnes

However Chopin has deservedly been called the greatest exponent of the Nocturne. Chopin’s 21 nocturnes are both popular and critically acclaimed and are in the repertoire of most concert pianists. Liszt championed John Field and the nocturne, but he himself composed only one true nocturne which is better known as Liebestraum. Similarly Robert Schumann’s 4 Nachtstücke are nocturnes by another name.

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The nocturne had special appeal to many French composers including Gabriel Fauré, Erik Satie and more recently Francis Poulenc. Debussy  wrote 3 Nocturnes for orchestra and female choir, but only one for solo piano. Likewise, Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, chamber orchestra and soloists, is not in the Field-Chopin model. Several American composers wrote nocturnes in the original, or the neo-romantic style, the most notable being Robert Helps and Lowell Lieberman.


The Russian School

Russian composers have approached nocturnes indirectly or often in rather novel manners. Scriabin wrote a number of these, including a nocturne for the left hand, but this and most of his other nocturnes are in the fin-de-siècle tradition and far removed from Chopin or Field. Earlier on Balakirev and Borodin did in fact write some nocturnes in the romantic style, while Glinka even wrote one scored for piano or harp, although his most popular nocturne is a rather sentimental one modelled on his very brief apprenticeship under his one time teacher, the most famous Irish-Russian John Field.


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John Field : From Russia with a Little Night Music

John Field came to Russia in 1802 on a concert tour, via France and Germany, as the favorite pupil and the de facto business associate of the famous teacher, pianist, piano maker and businessman Muzio Clementi. When Clementi left the Russian capital in 1803, Field decided to stay on. He fell in love with Russia, and liked the musical and cultural life in St. Petersburg so much that he settled there, made it his base for a very successful musical career and business nexus too. He finally settled in Moscow. He fell in love with a French pupil of his, got married, had some other affairs too, toured extensively all over Europe, got ill, was hospitalized in Naples, and eventually brought back to Moscow, where he died in 1837. In other words, he lived an artist’s life to the full, having spent most of it in Russia.

The first nocturnes of John Field were published circa 1812 when Chopin and Liszt were still in their cradles, and Field probably wrote, rearranged or published about 18 nocturnes almost all his creative life; no one knows exactly how many they were or if there are any unpublished ones.

The adult Chopin was apparently not very impressed with John Field, but he liked Field’s nocturnes which were a seminal influence on Chopin’s own compositions. Liszt on the other hand was more generous in every way, and called John Field’s Nocturnes …”a perfection of incomparable naiveté” in his famous review. As regards techniques Liszt echoed some other reviewers of his time and mentioned Field’s “enchanting legato..and his beautiful touch”. He should know!

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Carl Czerny : the unlikely Composer of Nocturnes

John Field wrote nocturnes before Chopin; by now most people know that. But Carl Czerny? Until recently, many people would have found it hard to believe that Czerny, the great piano teacher and dry disciplinarian of the “School of Velocity”, could actually write not just any “real” music but such romantic masterpieces as nocturnes.

But Czerny did compose nocturnes, not one accidentally, but 17 of them on the last count! And they are no pushovers either. Indeed, Czerny’s nocturnes often sound closer to Chopin’s model than Field’s original ones. It would be logical to put all this in the historical perspective since Carl Czerny (1791-1857) lived chronologically between John Field (1782-1837) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849); so he would seem to bridge the stylistic gap between Field and Chopin.

Needless to say, Czerny’s nocturnes, coming from an authority on piano techniques, are often quite difficult and dazzling, almost virtuoso showpieces. So, the reticent theorist will hopefully get a deservedly wider audience at last.


Samuel Barber's Nocturne: Homage to John Field

Among composers of our time noted for writing nocturnes there were many who composed charming but anachronistic pieces redolent of the old neo-romantic idioms while others were writing experimental, post-tonal or electronic music with no semblance of the nocturnes. One exception was Samuel Barber who refused to be so pigeonholed.

Barber’s op 33 nocturne is aptly sub-titled “Homage to John Field”. This homage is neither a blind imitation nor any revolutionary iconoclasm, it is rather a new piece of music based on the old ideas of Field and Chopin but written in an evolving style apropos of its time. It is an original composition neither romantic or neo-romantic nor consciously post modern. This is a highly chromatic yet lyrical piece which deserves to be as popular as his Adagio for Strings.

John Field would approve.