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Chopin, Field and Sand

Frederic Chopin is known for his vast array of piano music, including mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes and nocturnes. He may have popularised the nocturne, but its invention had to do more with another composer, John Field. Field was born to a musical family in Ireland, and when they moved to London, Field studied under Muzio Clementi, becoming a highly sought-after concert pianist. One could argue that the teacher-student relationship was symbiotic. In Field, Clementi found someone who could devote his time to performing and demonstrating the capabilities of the Clementi pianos (Clementi by this time had taken on the role as a piano manufacturer). The position as a performing sales representative for Clementi's pianos suited Field well too. It not only gave him opportunities to perform, but also gave him direct access to a publisher for his own compositions. As it happens, Field's first compositions were published by Clementi in 1795.

The two toured Paris, Vienna and St Petersberg together. While Clementi left St Petersberg in 1803, Field remained to fulfil a teaching position, act as a representative for Clementi, and also to immerse himself in the artistic life of the city. Sensing a business opportunity, the commercially-astute Clementi arranged for Field's earlier works to be published in Russia to take advantage of his growing popularity there. Field also later managed to secure publishing arrangements with Dalmas, a prominent Russian publisher, and the European publishing house Breitkopf & Hartel - a sign of how much in demand he was.

The Russian influence on Field manifested itself in works such as "Air russe varie" and "Kamarinskaya", which were variations on Russian folksongs. Many also ascribe the development of the Field style to his time in Russia. The characteristic Field song contains a chromatically-decorated melody over sonorous left hand parts which are carefully pedalled. Slightly contrary to the musical fashion of the time, Field preferred to compose long stretches of pedal points (sections of music that are underpinned by one chord), and use ostinato patterns (repeated rhythms). These traits can be seen in his eighteen nocturnes, which are loose in structure and evocative of certain moods. The term "nocturne", which later became popularised by Chopin, is said to have been invented by Field, and Field liked the style so much that in performances of his piano sonatas or piano concertos, he would play or improvise one in place of the customary slow movement.

Chopin himself wrote 21 nocturnes between 1827 and 1846. He expounded on it by using broken chords in the left hand to accompany the song-like melody in the right, and used the pedal to create more of an atmospheric aura. While Chopin admired Field's music, the admiration was not mutual; the Irish composer is said to have described him as "a sickroom talent".

The Chopin nocturnes cover the period when he was involved with Parisian socialite George Sand (real name: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin). The winter of 1838–1839, which he spent with her and her children in Majorca was one of his more productive periods of compostion, even though it was one of the more miserable periods of his life. Already ill with incipient tuberculosis, Chopin - and Sand - did not realize that proper lodgings were hard to find when they arrived in winter. The subsequent time they spent in the formerly abandoned Carthusian monastery of Valldemossa exacerbated his health symptoms.

Their ten-year relationship came to a bitter end over his cordiality towards her daughter, whom she had fallen out with, and also as a result of her son's dislike for him. Chopin died two years later - like Mozart, in his thirties, and with no possessions to his name.

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