John Field ‒ 18 Nocturnes

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Medtnaculus
Published at : 16 Jan 2021
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John Field (1782 - 1837), 18 Nocturnes (1812 - 1836)

Performed by Benjamin Frith

00:00 - Nocturne No. 1 in E-flat Major, H 24
03:54 - Nocturne No. 2 in C minor, H 25
07:36 - Nocturne No. 3 in A-flat Major, H 26
12:30 - Nocturne No. 4 in A Major, H 36
18:03 - Nocturne No. 5 in B-flat Major, H 37
20:58 - Nocturne No. 6 "Cradle Song" in F Major, H 40
26:05 - Nocturne No. 7 in C Major, H 45
31:22 - Nocturne No. 8 in A Major, H 14
35:48 - Nocturne No. 9 "Romance" in E-flat Major, H 30
39:50 - Nocturne No. 10 in E minor, H 46
43:02 - Nocturne No. 11 in E-flat Major, H 56
49:36 - Nocturne No. 12 in G Major, H 58
52:05 - Nocturne No. 13 "Dernière Pensée" in D minor , H 59
55:52 - Nocturne No. 14 in C Major, H 60
1:04:50 - Nocturne No. 15 in C Major, H 61
1:10:01 - Nocturne No. 16 in F Major, H 62
1:14:57 - Nocturne No. 17 in E Major, H 13
1:26:00 - Nocturne No. 18 "Midi" in E Major , H 54

The Irish composer John Field (1782–1837) was so enthralled by the night that he created a novel genre in music: the nocturne. By the early nineteenth century, art inspired by the night already flourished in other disciplines (poetry and painting), but Field is credited with fashioning a new type of piece within the musical canon, a miniature form that would move Frédéric Chopin to pen his legendary catalogue. According to the musicologist Theodore Baker, “Field was the first to introduce a style in no way derived from the established categories, and in which feeling and melody, freed from the trammels of coercive form, reign supreme ... And from them the inspired interpreter and rapt listener will be able to learn far more of Field’s true soul-life than can be taught by a few lines of plain prose ... Both as a composer and performer his only thought was to embody his own feelings.” With origins in the slow movements of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as well as the operatic aria, the nocturne captured the essence of Romanticism in its structural and expressive latitude: diminutive in size, but vast in sentiment.

Although the eighteen Nocturnes are largely tranquil and lyrical in character, a few deviate from the traditional definition of the term “nocturne”. Its stereotype as a slow, pastoral, dreamy trifle gets tested by the appearance of livelier and more capricious fare. For instance, No.12 in E major (subtitled “Noontide”) provides a playful break from the surrounding reverie, while No.16 in C major is more akin to a fantasy — meandering and moody, with surprising harmonic and emotional shifts.

Franz Liszt wrote a rapturous account of Field and his Nocturnes, calling them “genuine masterpieces of refined emotion”. Although the rhetoric is florid by contemporary standards, Liszt’s essay provides illuminating insights into this music, as these excerpts attest:

Where else shall we meet such a perfection of incomparable naïveté? No one since then has been able to reproduce the chambers of his speech, caressful as a moist and tender gaze; soothing as the slow, measured rocking of a boat or the swinging of a hammock, amid whose smoothly placid oscillations we seem to hear the dying murmur of melting caresses. No one has revived these vague Aeolian tones, these half-sighs of the breezes, plaintive wailings ecstatic moanings ...

If there be anything whereof one vainly tries to discover the secret, when Nature has not dowered us therewith, and thus set her seal on our talent, it is the grace of frankness and the charm of ingenuousness. One may possess them as an innate gift, but they cannot be acquired. Field had this gift, and thereby his compositions will ever retain an attraction, over which time has no power. His form will not grow old, because it is perfectly adapted to his conceptions, which do not belong to a class of temporary, transient sentiments ... but are pure emotions which will for ever cast their spell over the heart of man ... Both in writing and in playing, his sole idea was fully to express his own conceptions to himself ...

Are not his Nocturnes half-waking dreams, in a night without gloom, like the summer nights in St Petersburg ...?

... A secret harmony dispels the apparent disparity between nocturnal shades and the clear brilliancy of day; and we experience no surprise, 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 ...

The title Nocturne aptly applies to the pieces so named by Field, for it bears our thoughts at the outset toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of day, is lost in self-contemplation, and soars toward the regions of a starlit heaven ...
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