Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irish Pay Tribute to Founder of Russian Piano School

Embassy Of IrelandMiceal O'Rourke will play the music of John Field among others on Thursday.��
December of 1802 saw the arrival in St. Petersburg of eminent Italian-born composer and pianist Muzio Clementi. The purpose of his visit was purely commercial; he was there to promote the sale of pianos manufactured at his own London-based factory. Accompanying him to demonstrate the virtues of the instruments was Clementi's star pupil, a 20-year-old Irishman by the name of John Field.

Clementi returned home to London the following summer, but Field stayed on and made Russia his home for nearly all of his remaining 34 years. Possibly the most gifted pianist of his time, Field's influence on the musical life of Russia was such that he is now commonly acknowledged as the principal founder of the Russian school of piano playing.

Field was also a composer of considerable originality, and among today's leading interpreters of Field's music is Irish pianist Miceal O'Rourke. As part of this year's St. Patrick's Day celebrations, the Embassy of Ireland has invited O'Rourke to Moscow for a concert on Thursday at the Glinka Music Museum. Needless to say, the program includes the music of Field plus works by Franz Schubert, Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin.

Field was born in Dublin in 1782 to a family of musicians and very early on revealed musical talents of his own. By the age of 9, he was already playing the piano in public, and soon afterward he produced his first compositions, among them a set of variations for piano on an old Irish ballad charmingly titled "Go To the Devil and Shake Yourself."

In 1793, Field moved with his family to London, where his father, a violinist, was engaged to lead the orchestra of the Haymarket Theater. Almost immediately, the young prodigy found himself apprenticed to Clementi, under whose rather harsh tutelage he considerably developed his skills as both a pianist and a composer.

An account of the adventurous life Field led after breaking free of Clementi often reads like a work of fiction. Never before had Russian audiences heard a pianist of his caliber, and his virtuosity at the keyboard soon made him not only the toast of St. Petersburg but also of Moscow, where he eventually settled in the 1820s. With the fees gained from his concerts and from tutoring the wives and daughters of the aristocratic and wealthy, he enjoyed a substantial income, much of which he spent on a bohemian lifestyle heavily influenced by alcohol.

Among the many contemporary accounts of Field at the piano is that of composer Mikhail Glinka, who studied with Field as a young boy and treasured the experience throughout his life. According to Glinka, "Field's playing was at once sweet and strong and characterized by admirable precision. His fingers fell on the keys as large drops of rain that spread themselves out like iridescent pearls." Field the pianist was also much admired by the likes of Franz Liszt and Chopin, the latter considering it a great compliment to be told by a listener that his playing had about it "a touch of Field."

As a composer, Field is chiefly known for his invention of the nocturne, a form that went on to be adopted and developed by Chopin as the basis for some of his most inspired music.

Field was reluctant to take on professional pupils. Of the few he accepted, some progressed to highly successful careers on the concert stage. But probably the most important of all were two now practically forgotten figures, Alexander Dyubyuk and Alexander Villuan, both of whom devoted themselves mainly to teaching and through whom the spirit and substance of Field's playing was passed on to pianists of later generations. Dyubyuk became the teacher of Nikolai Zverev, who taught Konstantin Igumov, who in turn taught Yakov Fliyer, the principal teacher of Mikhail Pletnev, arguably the finest Russian pianist of recent times. Villuan's most famous pupils were the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, and through them and other pupils, notable heirs to the legacy of Field have included Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz and the most influential of all 20th-century Russian piano teachers, Heinrich Neuhaus.

Returning to Moscow in ill health after a lengthy sojourn abroad, Field died there some 18 months later, in January 1837. He was buried in Vvedenskoye Cemetery, where the impressive monument marking his grave, erected with funds subscribed by the city's elite, has recently been restored to its original state.

"Are you a Catholic?" asked a priest who was sent to Field on his deathbed. "No," replied Field. "Are you a Protestant?" "No." "Are you a Calvinist?" "Not that either," Field answered, "not a Calvinist, but a pianist."

Miceal O'Rourke plays on Mar 19 at 7 p.m. at the Glinka Music Museum, located at 4 Ulitsa Fadeyeva. Metro Mayakovskaya, Novoslobodskaya. The concert is free of charge, but reservations are required. For reservations, apply by e-mail to the Embassy of Ireland at Moscowembassy@dfa.ie.