Field, John (1782–1837), pianist and composer, was born 16 or 26 July 1782 in Golden Lane, Dublin, and baptised at St Werburgh's church on 5 September. He was the eldest son of a Dublin couple, Robert Field, a theatre violinist (himself the son of John Field, a professional organist), and Grace Field (née Marsh), possibly the sister of an organist. The family moved house many times, as the birth addresses of the Fields’ other children attest: Robert was born in 1784 in Aungier Street; Isaac and Robert Mark were born in Golden Lane in 1785 and 1786; Ann and Grace Marsh were born in Chancery Lane in 1788 and 1790; and Grace was born in 1791 in Camden Street. The Camden Street address was their final residence before the family departed for England in summer 1793.
Field received his initial musical instruction on piano and violin from his father and grandfather, and in 1791–2 was a pupil of Tommaso Giordani (qv), an Italian composer working in Dublin. Giordani organised Field's debut at the first of three Lenten ‘spiritual concerts’ at the Rotunda Assembly Rooms on 24 March 1792. After the family settled in London, Field was apprenticed to Muzio Clementi for a fee of 100 guineas; much of his time was spent promoting pianos at Clementi's warehouse, which was part of Messrs Longman & Broderip, a firm of instrument makers and music publishers. He performed publicly several times in London: Haydn heard him, probably in May 1794 at Barthelmon's concerts, and praised Field's playing in his diary. However between 1795 and 1799 there were no further public performances as he was primarily engaged in the business side of his apprenticeship. His first success as a composer came on 7 February 1799, when he performed his own piano concerto at the King's Theatre; it is likely that his father played violin in the orchestra on that occasion. At the end of his apprenticeship, though aged only eighteen, Field was already an established virtuoso in London. Although the Morning Post of 21 February 1801 referred to him as ‘the late pupil of Clementi’, Field continued to work for Clementi as a waged employee, and began to teach piano privately. Charles Neate was his first outstanding pupil. A measure of Field's fame is the existence of portraits by Martin Archer Shee (qv), James Lonsdale, and P. J. Loutherbourg, all painted in London at the turn of the century. (He was later also the subject of portraits made in Russia.)
In August 1802 Clementi took Field to Paris, where he performed at soirées. His three piano sonatas were published there shortly afterwards, indicating his success among connoisseurs in the French capital. It is notable that in addition to the usual fare of salon music, he made a reputation for playing keyboard music by Bach and Handel, which was unfamiliar to Parisian audiences. In the autumn of that year the pair arrived in Vienna, where Field studied counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, Beethoven's former teacher. Clementi decided that Field should pursue his own career from this time on, but Field persuaded him to take him that winter to St Petersburg, where their relationship began to deteriorate.
They stayed at the Hôtel de Paris in St Petersburg for several months while Clementi arranged to open a piano warehouse, where Field found further employment. While financial and social betterment came to Field with this post, he paid dearly for Clementi's sponsorship as the older man continued to treat him as an employee (for example taking Field's fee when Field deputised for him at the so-called English Clubs). However, before his departure from St Petersburg in June 1803 Clementi recommended him to powerful aristocratic and titled patrons, notably Prince Demidov and General Marklovsky of Narva, which led to invitations to teach and perform. Field was effectively an artist-in-residence to Marklovsky during the summer of 1803, and in the winter of that year he found his own apartment. His first public appearance on the concert stage in Russia was at the Philharmonic Hall in Nevsky Prospect in March 1804, which won him considerable acclaim in the St Petersburg press. He was now in demand as a teacher and was able to command the highest fees; this income was supplemented by the considerable sum of 500 roubles for private performances in the houses of the nobility.
In 1805 Field travelled to Riga, and then to Mittau (Yelgava), where Louis XVIII of France was in exile, and where Field was the guest of Governor Arsenyev and later of Baron von Berner. It was in the latter's household that he misguidedly proposed to a French governess, who had to be persuaded to release him. Field then returned to Riga where he gave concerts in January 1806. From there he went to Moscow, where he mainly lived until 1812. After his first concert in Moscow on 2 March 1806 he received the usual acclaim and requests for lessons and invitations to perform at private houses. The atmosphere in Moscow, which was more relaxed than the imperial capital, suited Field's bohemian personality, but he returned to St Petersburg in the summer of 1806, and for the next fifteen years alternated between the two cities.
Field composed only grudgingly, to provide new material for performance, and typically dedicated new compositions to members of the social elite. The publisher Dalmas in St Petersburg published some of these works, which were disseminated in fashionable journals such as Variétés Lyriques pour les Dames. Field enjoyed society life to the full, and acquired all the accoutrements of privilege. He spoke French and a little German but no Russian; he was known as a society wit, a reputation that seems to have been aided by his stammer and careless dress sense. However, he had no regard for financial management and squandered his considerable earnings on entertaining himself and his friends. By 1810 his fondness for alcohol was established although not yet disastrous.
On 31 May 1810 Field married Adelaide Victoria Percheron, nicknamed ‘Percherette’, at Moscow's French catholic church. She had been his pupil, and probably his mistress, in Moscow since 1807. She was born in Pondicherry, India, and her father was Adrien Louis Percheron, war commissioner of the French fleet. It is not known how she came to be in Russia, where she was in the care of an old French émigré, Chevalier d'Ysarn. Such was her talent that she performed in public – notably on 14 March 1812 in Moscow when she appeared as Madame Field. Field's life was little affected by the arrival of Napoleon's army in that year, but he responded with his Marche triomphale en honneur des victoires du Général Wittgenstein. By 1812 his marriage was in trouble and he began an affair with Mlle Charpentier, possibly a member of the French Opera Company in St Petersburg, who bore their son, Leon, in 1815. Leon Charpentier trained as an opera singer and enjoyed a long career in St Petersburg under the name Leonov.
In 1815 Field was offered, through the good offices of Count Orlov, the honorary title of ‘court pianist’, which he refused. In September of that year he accepted a publishing deal with Breitkopf & Härtel, which indicates the level of demand for his music across Europe. However, he did not avail himself of the opportunity to exploit his reputation by touring Europe's musical cities, choosing instead to remain in Russia. In the winter of 1817 Field gave three piano lessons to the thirteen-year-old Mikhail Glinka who wrote very fondly of him in his memoirs many years later; their brief relationship ended when Field returned to Moscow in the spring of 1818. In 1821 he finally left St Petersburg for Moscow, probably with Charpentier and Leon, while Percherette moved to Smolensk with their eighteen-month-old son, Adrien. Madame Field continued to give piano lessons and occasional performances. Her final concert appearance was in Moscow in 1842, and she died in 1869, outliving her son. From 1821 onwards Field's alcohol dependency took its toll on his health and he developed cancer of the rectum. He continued to teach but performed little. Johann Hummel, his main rival, paid him a visit in February 1822 and the two became life-long friends.
In autumn 1831 Field, accompanied by Leon, travelled to London, where he received medical attention. He attended Clementi's funeral in March 1832, and buried his mother in July. He performed in London and Manchester before leaving for Paris, where he gave a concert on Christmas day 1832 to an audience that included Chopin and Liszt. He then travelled to Brussels, where he was commanded by Leopold I to perform at the Belgian court on 11 March. He returned to Paris for medical treatment before touring to Toulouse, Marseilles, Lyons, and Geneva from June to September 1833. He then travelled to Milan via the Simplon Pass, to Florence, and finally to Naples in March 1834. Illness prevented him from performing in Naples, where he spent nine months in a hospital. In early 1835 Field received help from a visiting Moscow noble family, Princess Galitzina and her husband Count Rakhmanov. They took Field and Leon back to Moscow, stopping in Vienna in early August, where he gave three concerts and remained for some weeks, for two of which he was the guest of Carl Czerny.
Field spent the final year of his life giving some lessons and occasional performances, and socialising. He gave his final concert in March 1836. He caught pneumonia during December of that year and died 23 January 1837; he was buried four days later in the Vedensky cemetery. In the following year a tombstone was erected, which was paid for by public subscription, and which bears the words: ‘John Field. Born in Ireland in 1782. Dead [sic] in Moscow in 1837’, and on the reverse: ‘Erected To His Memory By His grateful Friends and Scholars.’ Among the illustrious names of the donors is Tolstoy.
Although largely neglected in the early twentieth century (though less so more recently), Field was a seminal figure in the development of a specifically Romantic sensibility in piano music, as evidenced by his Fantaisie sur l'Andante de Martini (published in St Petersburg, 1811). By 1812 he had established the nocturne as a prototypical Romantic character-piece – the achievement on which his reputation chiefly hangs. He was also influential for his style of performance, setting the highest standard for contemporary virtuosos, though his intimate style was soon overtaken by the more extrovert virtuoso tradition introduced by Paganini.