On John Field’s Nocturnes by Franz Liszt (1859)
This is an extract from Franz Liszt’s essay on John Field’s Nocturnes. The essay was first published in 1859 as a preface to Liszt’s edition of six of the Nocturnes. Omissions and additons are indicated by square brackets.
The publication of the first six Nocturnes by Field, united here for the first time, will assuredly meet the desires of all who feel the poignant charm of these tender poems. Hitherto one had to seek them in various editions, the author having carelessly strewn them along his path; for he showed the same negligence in their publication as in their performance – a negligence which enhanced the grace of his talent, but which causes his admirers regret at the difficulty of collecting his compositions, genuine masterpieces of refined emotion. It is a pity that rights of proprietorship still prevent the issue of a complete edition; a collection has been made, at least, of those numbers the reprinting of which was authorized.
Field’s Nocturnes have preserved their youth beside so many works untimely aged! After more than thirty-six years they still seem to exhale copious perfumes. Where else shall we meet such a perfection of incomparable naiveté? No one since then has been able to reproduce the charms of his speech, caressful as a moist and tender gaze; soothing as the slow, measured rocking of a boat or the swinging of a hammock, amid whose smoothly placid oscillations we seem to hear the dying murmur of melting caresses. No one has revived these vague Aeolian tones, these half-sighs of the breezes, plaintive wailings, ecstatic moanings. No one has dared attempt them; no one, especially, who heard Field himself play, or rather dream, his pieces, wrapt in inspiration, not limiting himself to the written notes, but incessantly inventing new groups wherewith to engarland his melodies; at each repetition he would adorn them diversely with a flowery rain, yet they never wholly disappeared beneath an ornamentation which veiled, without hiding, their languishing undulations and ravishing outlines. What an inexhaustible wealth of variations did he lavish on the embellishment of his thought! With what rare taste would be intertwine around it, without smothering it, the most subtle weft of arabesques!
Having once surrendered oneself to the placid emotion which sways his compositions, as it swayed his playing, one cannot avoid the conviction that it would be quite useless to attempt to copy him, or to hope happily to imitate this delicate originality, which excluded neither extreme simplicity of sentiment, nor variety of form and embellishment. If there be anything whereof one vainly tries to discover the secret, when nature has not dowered us within, and thus set her seal on our talent, it is the grace of frankness and the charm of ingenuousness. One may possess them as an innate gift, but they cannot be acquired. Field had this gift, and thereby his compositions will ever retain an attraction, over which time has no power. His form will not grow old, because it is perfectly adapted to his conceptions, which do not belong to a class of temporary, transient sentiments, called into being by the influence of his environment at the time, but are pure emotions which will for ever cast a spell over the heart of man; for he finds them always the same, whether contrasted with the beauties of Nature or with the fondest happiness revealed to him at the morn of life, before the radiant prisms of emotion are overclouded by the shadow of reflection. One may, therefore, not even dream of forming oneself upon this admirable model, because one cannot attain, without unique aspiration, to those effects which are found only when unsought. To analyze the charm of their spontaneity would be a vain task. They emanate solely from a temperament like that of Field. For him, invention and facility were one, diversity of form a necessity, as is usually the case with those who are filled to overflowing with an emotion. Therefore, despite this elegance, which varied so greatly with his moods, there was no trace of affectation in his talent; far from this, his exquisiteness had all the simplicity of instinct, which delights in endless modulations of the simple and happy chord of the sentiment with which the heart is filled.
And what we say is equally applicable to the composer and the virtuoso. Both in writing and in playing, his sole idea was fully to express his own conceptions to himself; one cannot imagine a franker disregard of the public than was his. When he came to Paris, he did not refuse to play on square pianos at his concerts, though their effect was certainly not equal to that which he might have obtained on an instrument better suited to the halls in which he gathered attentive audiences, holding then spellbound without himself being aware of it. His almost immovable attitude and but slightly expressive face attracted not attention. His eye sought no other eye. His execution flowed clear and limpid. His fingers glided over the keys, and the sounds they awoke seemed to follow them like a foaming wave-crest. It was easy to see, that for him his chief auditor was himself. His tranquillity was wellnigh somnolent, and the impression that might be made on his hearers was his least care. No abruptness, no shock, either in gesture or rhythm, everh supervened to interrupt his melodious revery, whose fondly murmurous melodies, mezza voce, spread through the air on delicious waves the most suave impressions, the most charming surprises of the heart!
[Liszt discusses Field’s personality and his attitude to fame.]
The title Nocturne aptly applies to the pieces so named by Field, for it bears our thoughts at the outset toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation, and soars toward the regions of a starlit heaven. We see her hovering on ethereal pinions, like the antique Philomela, over the flowers and perfumes of a nature whereof she is enamoured………Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they oft give rise. His flight is loftier, though his wing be more wounded; and his very suaveness grows heartrending, so thinly does it veil his despairful anguish. We may never hope to surpass – which in all the arts, means to equal that preëminence of inspiration and form wherewith he endowed all the pieces he published under this title. Their closer kinship of sorrow than those of Field renders them the more strongly marked; their poetry is more sombre and fascinating; they ravish us more, but are less reposeful; and thus permit us to return with pleasure to those pearly shells that open, far from the tempests and the immensities of Ocean, beside some murmuring spring shaded by the palms of a happy oasis which makes us forget even the existence of the desert.
The charm which I have always found in these pieces, with their wealth of melody and refinement of harmony, goes back to the years of my earliest childhood. Long before I ever dreamed of ever meeting their author, I had given myself up for hours at a time to the soothing influences of the visions flowing from the gentle intoxication of this music, comparable to the odorous smoke-wreaths of rose-tobacco substituted in a narghileh, for the acrid whiffs of tombeki – hallucinations free from fever and violent emotion, but filled, on the contrary, with floating iridescent images whose touching beauties, in some moments of happy illusion, reach the intensity of passion. All the emotions that moved to the writing and [r]eading Idylls and Eclogues are found here in their most charming manifestations. How many moments have I passed while allowing my imagination and my eyes to stray around the name of Mme. de Rosenkampf, to whom the longest and loveliest of these pieces (the Fourth Nocturne) is dedicated! What confused and amiable ideas did I connect with this “Battle of Roses” whence had sprung this inspiration so profoundly felt, so tenderly melancholy, and so felicitous! in it distinction of style rivals grace of sentiment, and it is instinct with so rare a delicacy of ornamentation, and so exquisite an art in the modulation of the thought, that it seems as if the composer could find nothing noble, nothing choice, nothing irreproachable enough while writing these chaste lines.
[Liszt discusses the first and fifth Nocturnes and gives some biographical information about Field.]
A favorite pupil of Clementi, he learned from this great master the secrets of the finest execution known at that period, and employed it in a style of poetry wherein he will ever be an incomparable model of grace unconscious of itself, of melancholy artlessness, of refinement and natural ease alike. He is one of those types of a primitive school, with which one meets only at certain artistic epochs, when art, beginning to divine her resources, has not yet exhausted them so far as to venture to extend her domain, in order to develop her powers more freely, even at the risk of breaking her wings more than once while essaying to cast off her trammels.
Franz Liszt, in an edition of six of Field’s Nocturnes revised by Liszt, J. Schuberth & Co., Leipzig, 1859. Translated by Theodore Baker and quoted in Field Eighteen Nocturnes for the Piano, G. Schirmer, New York & London, 1902.