Week 192: “Nocturne no. 10” by John Field


Of all the composers who wrote nocturnes, the most overlooked is probably John Field. Which is a little unfair, considering he invented it.

The nocturne is typically a short piece for solo piano, calm and soothing, and meant to evoke the night. In the 19th century, the nocturne was extremely popular, especially among French composers. Debussy, Chopin, Satie, Fauré, and Bizet are among the night-obsessed Frenchmen who capitalized on the trend. But it is John Field, an Irishman, who is usually cited as having come up with the nocturne.

Although the names of the composers he inspired are more recognizable than his own today, back in the early 1800s he was extremely famous, both as a composer and performer. In fact, his career followed a path usually associated with modern pop stars; wealth and fame, followed by infidelity, substance abuse, and eventually a painful and premature death brought on by an overly extravagant lifestyle.

But for all his hard living, his nocturnes are things of subtle, gracious beauty. Maybe his love of nightlife is what drove him to create a style associated with the night. Franz Liszt, another of the many composers influenced by Field, described the Irishman’s nocturnes as “…half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy.”

And that just about sums it up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Little unexpected dissonances, like the one only 5 seconds in, add a touch of uneasiness.

2. Little major cadences, like the one at the 1-minute mark, add a touch of hopefulness.

3. At 2:33 you can hear one of the “half-formed sighs floating through the air” that Liszt was talking about.

Recommended listening activity:

Being nocturnal.

Buy it here.