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Very few composers are credited with having invented a classical music form, but the one thing that many people have heard about John Field (1782 – 1837) is that he invented the nocturne. It isn’t true, of course: others before him (Haydn for one) had used the term ‘nocturne’ or ‘notturno,’ either for a short, lyrical piece, or for a kind of serenade. But it was Field who cultivated it both as an idea and a genre, and associated it inescapably with the piano. Perhaps more important is the fact that he was the first Celtic voice – certainly the first Irish composer – to make a contribution to European concert music. And his contribution, though not massive in itself, had huge consequences.

At a time when most concert pianists were interested in enlarging the power and range of the piano, Field cultivated its possibilities for intimate expression. His pupil Alexander Dubuque maintained that “Much as I liked some of Field’s compositions, the chief beauty lay in his playing … his touch on the keys … the way his melodies sang, the easy, heavenly ‘floating’ of his scales and passagework, the nobility of interpretation.” Altogether, it seems that Field created a new, romantic ideal of artistic expressiveness rather than the cultivation of mere brilliant technique that had dominated piano playing up until then.

ST#167 Playlist: The Nocturne (John Field)