It’s the Only Way to Go

Today I was teaching my 19th-century harmony course, starting with John Field’s Nocturnes, and as I was placing my Schirmer edition on the piano, it fell open to the little capsule biography of the composer. By chance my eye lit on the following words:

…He died in Moscow January 11, 1837.

Field’s execution was distinguished for taste and extreme delicacy, and characterized by an extreme ease and placidity of manner which sometimes amounted to a morbid languor and indifference.

For the next couple of minutes I was unable to continue teaching. I had always rather assumed that Field died a natural death, but the shock was somewhat ameliorated by the assurance that, thank goodness, at least his execution had been extremely delicate. Those Russians really know how to kill a man.


  1. says

    hmmm… it’s a fascinating thought, but I strongly suspect the text is referring to his pianistic execution. All accounts I can find suggest Field died of illness, not a Russian bullet, however delicate… :)
    KG replies: I expected as much. But it seemed like poor editing to mention his execution immediately after mentioning his death.

  2. says

    Prof. Gann –
    I think you misinterpreted the quote. I think they are talking about the execution of his compositional style. Wikipedia makes it sound like he died of cancer…
    “By 1831 his health deteriorated, and suffering from a painful cancer of the rectum he travelled back to London for medical attention. After treatment he returned to Russia by way of France (where, after first hearing one of Franz Liszt’s performances on the keyboard, he asked his neighbour, “Does he bite?”) and Italy, spending nine months in a hospital in Naples. Helped by a Russian aristocratic family, he returned to Moscow in 1835, and gave three concerts in Vienna en route, as a guest of Carl Czerny. In Moscow, he composed his last few nocturnes in the sixteen months remaining to him.
    He died in Moscow two years later.”
    KG replies: I believe in this case “execution” referred to his piano playing rather than his composing. Perhaps a little obscure, but my students got the joke.

  3. says

    Dear Professor Gann,
    I must come to your defense against your critics. You are obviously aware, as they are not, that it was quite common for 19th-century pianist-composers to be executed. It is far and away the leading explanation of why so few manuscript full scores exist of 19th-century piano concertos. The executions traditionally took place in Russia because of favorable union rules and up-to-date mechanisms that fostered taste and delicacy, as you note. But there are exceptions.
    Eugene D’Albert proves the rule, you remember, on two counts. He died from choking while dining, after his sixth wife slapped him when he made an inappropriate remark concerning Teresa Carreño. Witnesses disagree on whether the cause of the outrage was the joke itself or because he kept referring to Ms. Carreño as “my wife” when she was, of course, wife #2. Leaving the magnitude of such an error to be judged by those most closely concerned, the real irony, of course, is that the dinner took place in Latvia where he was awaiting execution. It was, in fact, his last meal before the dawn ceremony.
    But here’s the thing: he was actually on his way to Moscow for his scheduled demise (he was on a concert tour of his native Scotland when the papers came through notifying him that his execution had been approved), but when they arrived in Riga via Oslo and Stockholm, they found that the trains to Moscow had been overbooked that week with other to-be-executed-pianist-composers, spouses, ex-spouses, and other mourner/celebrants. So the authorities approached the Latvian government, which proved remarkably accommodating, seeing as how no objections could be found, especially in view of public and foreign relations. So it was decided that one outsourcing exception wouldn’t hurt. In a manner of speaking.
    You know, of course, that forensic musicologists differ on whether this is an exception after all, since this occurred in 1932, stretching the scope of 19th-century. But it is still ironic, since that dinner was going to be his last meal no matter what happened–regardless of his sense of humor, or his wife’s lack, or the lack of same by your critics.
    Yr most humble, etc.,
    Kile Smith

  4. Paul H. Muller says

    I was once accused of murdering a Mahler symphony, and I confess I did it with a B flat trumpet.
    I have been working on my execution ever since.

  5. Ryan Howard says

    This reminds me of the capsule biography of St. Ignatius of Antioch I read in junior high:
    “St. Ignatius was sentenced to die in the Colosseum, where he was fed to hungry lions. The Church celebrates the feast of St. Ignatius on October 17th by those following the Roman Calendar of Saints…”

  6. says

    In further support of Kile Smith’s evidence, there’s this, from Oscar Wilde’s account of his stop in Leadville, Colorado, during a lecture tour of America, 1882:
    “They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice: ‘Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.’”
    KG replies: Well, I thought it was hilarious, but maybe I have a strange sense of humor.

  7. says

    Hard to say for sure.
    “taste and extreme delicacy” could be describing something cannibalistic, ooh, don’t even want to think about it.

  8. E. Patton says

    And you thought Alkan’s death was an accident.
    KG replies: Heck, with Alkan I didn’t even buy the official “lone gunman” story.

  9. mclaren says

    Ivor Darreg wrote several essays about this musical terminological confusion. Engineers use modulation to mean one thing, musicians another.
    Then of course there’s the fact that in Western music, the third is the fifth and the fifth is third. Harmonic, that is. brainfried yet?