John Field was born in Dublin, and both his father and his grandfather were professional musicians so he was exposed to music from a young age. His grandfather (also called John Field) played organ, and taught piano to the younger John Field who started performing in public at the age of 9. His family moved to London when he was 11, and he then started studies with the highly influential composer/pianist Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), a relationship which was to continue for much of his life. Field continued to give recitals in London and elsewhere and his reputation as a performer grew. Haydn attended one of his London concerts and predicted a great career in music. He started composing as a teenager and he premiered his first Piano Concerto in London at the age of 16. Among other things Clementi sold a range of pianos and the young Field helped to demonstrate them to customers. Still in his teens and continuing his studies, Field accompanied Clementi on a business trip which took them to Paris and then Vienna where he met and played for Beethoven before reaching Saint Petersburg, then the capital of Russia. Clementi eventually returned while Field stayed on.
Although he still travelled on tour throughout much of Europe, performing and meeting up with other composers and musicians, Field essentially settled in Russia for many years (staying variously in Moscow and Saint Petersburg) where he continued to work as teacher, performer and composer. Among his pupils in Russia were Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) who took some lessons with him. Unfortunately Field's lifestyle was not a healthy one, including an overindulgence in alcohol, and he became ill with cancer. He returned to England for a medical operation, though he still found time to give some concerts there and meet the likes of Mendelssohn. His earlier teacher Clementi died in 1832 and Field was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Field continue to tour various European cities before returning to Moscow where he died of pneumonia.
As a skilled pianist and regular performer, it is hardly surprising that most of Field's compositions feature the piano. He wrote a total of 7 Piano Concertos and a few chamber music pieces for groups of musicians, but most of his works were for solo Piano. He composed pieces in most of the standard forms of the time including Sonatas, Variations, Rondos, Waltzes, Fantasies, Etudes, and others. He is most famous for his Nocturnes. He composed at least 18 numbered nocturnes and some unnumbered ones. He is sometimes credited with having invented the form, but either way it seemed to suit his free form style based on melodic ideas and their subsequent elaboration. He is certainly credited with inspiring Chopin to adopt the Nocturne and compose many of his own which are now better known than Field's. These works were also well known to Liszt, who published an edition of Field's Nocturnes, based on revisions by the composer made while based in Russia. Other composers to be influenced by Field's music included Brahms and Schumann.
Field's compositions were catalogued in 1961 by Cecil Hopkinson and consequently most have been given "H" numbers from H1 through H67. As an example of the form for which Field is most famous, here is his Nocturne No.5 in B-flat major (H37). This is presented in its original form for piano solo, and also in an arrangement for Violin and Piano by the German violinist and composer Friedrich Hermann (1828-1907):
Here are some listening suggestions for Field's music: