The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: John Field’s Piano Concerto No. 4 shows there is much more to the Irish composer than being the inventor of the nocturne, says UW pianist Christopher Taylor who will perform it Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

March 13, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Saturday is Saint Patrick’s Day.

Little wonder, then, that the theme of the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under conductor Andrew Sewell on Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater is “A Celtic Celebration.”

Like many people, I know of John Field (1782-1837, below) as the Irish composer who pioneered the form of the Nocturne, which was then carried to perfection, most would agree, by Chopin. 

But there is much more to Field than his nocturnes, says University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who will perform Field’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major.

Also on the program are: Mendelssohn’ s famous  “The Hebrides Overture,”  Op. 26; the “Celtic” Symphony for string orchestra and six harps by 
the rarely heard British composer Granville Bantock (below); and Mozart’s well-known Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner,” which was composed the same year as the birth of John Field.

Field, was born in Dublin, but spent much of his adult life abroad. A gifted pianist, he became Clementi’s protégé, eventually settling in St. Petersburg. Highly regarded by his contemporaries, his playing and compositions influenced Chopin, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. 

Tickets are $15-$62. For more information, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or visit:  

Taylor (below) recently talked about John Fields in an email interview with The Ear:

How would you describe John Field as a composer and compare him musically and historically to other early and important Romantics, especially Chopin?

John Field (below) was a real prophet of Romanticism.  Just 11 years younger than Beethoven, his music sounds very different — an unfailingly lyrical melodic sense, considerable formal freedom, and a virtuoso approach to the keyboard emphasizing brilliance and sparkling grace. The more intellectual, Classical, prototypically Germanic values are much less in evidence with Field.

I find it quite suggestive that it was two composers from Europe’s periphery — Field from Ireland and Chopin from Poland — who played so instrumental a role in blazing a new, emancipated path for 19th-century keyboard music.

Do you consider Field undervalued or underplayed and in need of more performances?

I’m always in favor of bringing new and less familiar repertoire into the concert hall, particularly when they have the sort of historical significance that Field’s works possess.  His music has tremendous charm, and there’s no reason at all that audiences can’t come to love it.

Tell us how learning the Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat affected or changed your opinion of Field?

I admit my knowledge of his work was previously restricted to a few nocturnes; hence I had some appreciation of how he influenced that facet of the music of Chopin (below). But this concerto shows that his influence extended well beyond the nocturnal.  This work, written when Chopin was just four years old, anticipates much of the brilliant style found in Chopin’s early works, including his piano concertos.

While its construction is a bit loose, even rambling, by the standards of Mozart and Beethoven, it demonstrates a composer in complete technical command, full of creative ideas.

Like the Italian composers of the early Classical period, Field has been overshadowed by his successors, but I find his music much more interesting and appealing than his reputation as a mere harbinger would suggest.

What can you tell us about the Field piano concerto and your performance or interpretation of it? What should the audience especially listen for and pay attention to?

Listening to this work should not require intense effort, nor any undue patience or forbearance from the audience.  The imposing first movement is consistently tuneful, with bubbly passagework that befits its author’s status as one of the era’s great virtuosos.

The middle movement, a gentle Siciliano, is much more modest in scale but features a charming interplay between soloist and orchestra vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven’s fourth concerto.

The finale is again a substantial bit of writing, with a recurring rondo theme suggestive of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata’s finale, with similarly evocative pedaling suggestions.

Learning it has been a great pleasure, and I hope that this opportunity to perform it will not be my last.

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