The John Marsh Journals
The life and time of a gentleman composer
by Brian Robins
Music is, of course, the single topic that dominates the journals and provides a thread of continuity through its many volumes. The text thus provides fertile research ground for any scholar working on music in England during the later part of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth. No other writer has provided a more comprehensive picture of the rough-and-tumble of contemporary provincial music making, with its frequently uneasy juxtaposition of amateur and professional players, and its petty jealousies and schisms. Yet from such unpromising ingredients the impression that emerges is one of dynamic musical activity particularly during Marsh’s years in Salisbury, the venue for one of the most important music festivals in England. The journal also documents the schism that divided Salisbury’s musical and social life from 1780 to1782. The opposing factions were able to mount rival series of subscription concerts (Marsh played in both, being one of the few to refuse to adopt a partisan position), along with catch clubs and a continuous round of social music-making. Rarely can a city of some seven thousand inhabitants have heard so much music!
While Salisbury had a strong musical tradition, Canterbury and Chichester did not and, as noted above, Marsh found himself offered the management of the concerts in both cities. In the following excerpt he explains how he came to take over the management at Canterbury, which he felt he could undertake only with the cooperation of other amateur players, whatever their shortcomings. The second paragraph is of particular interest for the information it provides on the question of eighteenth century orchestral disposition, a subject of disagreement among current adherents of “authentic” performance:
“This concert it seems (which was led by Saffery, the Singing Man) had been for some time very much on the decline and very poorly attended, there being no Gentlemen Performers amongst them, but all people belonging to the Choir & the E Kent Militia Band, which was but a very poor one, tho’ there was however a very good Concert Room with an Orchestra, partly fix’d & partly moveable, belonging to a Set of Gentlemen who had subscrib’d to the building of it. –On my coming however to settle at Nethersole the Management of it was put intirely into my hands, which I agreed to accept & also to lead the Band, upon condition that the few Gentlemen Performers there were in Canterbury would join me in assisting in the Orchestra, & two of them become Stewards for the 1st. Year jointly with me. Of these Gentlemen the only ones then at Canterbury were Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Williamson the Surgeon, & Mr. Burnby the Mercer, the most useful of whom was Mr. Williamson who was a very steady and good performer (as far as his Execution went) upon the fiddle, Tenor or Violoncello. Mr. Sharpe also played the Violoncello neatly enough & well in tune, but was so weak in his Tone, unsteady in his Time and withal so timid that he was not to be trusted to take a principal or leading Bass, but could only play out of a Book with another. As to Mr. Burnby, he neither played in Time, Tune, or had any Tone or Execution and only therefore added to the apparent Strength of the Orchestra, in which I therefore allotted him a place in a Corner in the Rear.
Having settled & arrang’d the Performers, & appointed Messrs. Sharpe and Williamson with myself Stewards for the following Season, the next thing I had to do was to new model the Orchestra which was quite upon the old fashion’d plan; the principal 1st and 2nd. Fiddle standing each out in front, & the rest of the fiddles & Basses & Tenor behind on the same level, with the Wind Instruments raised above them at the back of the Orchestra which being fix’d to the room, I let remain, but had the front and lower part alter’d into 2 stages of different heights, in the front or lowest of which I now meant to place the Harpsichord, principal Violoncello & Tenor with the Singers, and in the other (or middle row of the Orchestra) the fiddles all in a line. As to the Wind instruments those I allotted to the back or uppermost Row as before. –According to this plan the Leader would be exactly in the center of the Orchestra with the principal 2d. fiddle next to him, the principal Hautboy, clarinet or Flute just behind him & the principal Violoncello and Singer just under him” (October 1793, 8 : 148-50)
Marsh’s musical experiences were by no means confined to the provinces, for his frequent visits to London ensured that he kept pace with musical life in the capital. Often he deliberately timed his business to coincide with musical events, such as the first of the great Handel commemorations held at Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon in the spring of 1784. Marsh’s account of the opening performance at the Abbey on 26 May is no mere musical critic but rather a dramatic account that vividly captures the excitement of a long day that began when the city was just stirring (9: 34-40). In the 1790s he would attend several of Haydn’s famous London concerts, and on 21 February 1801 he heard the first London performance of Mozart’s Requiem, published for the first time the previous year, which he notes was “very indifferently perform’d” (21:93).
Such comments are not always offered; frequently Marsh leaves us without expressing his opinions, simply indicating his presence at the event. His interest is often more acutely directed toward his surroundings and the people involved than toward the skill of the performers. One of his great gifts is an ability to provide succinct and penetrating pen-portraits of the people with whom he came into contact, both the famous and the obscure. Among the former can be numbered figures such as “Capability” Brown, John Wilkes, William Wilberforce, William Blake and George Romney. He had a long friendship with the poet William Hayley and his first wife Eliza. But it is often his descriptions of groups in society, the people with whom he mingled on a day-to-day basis, that provide the most pertinent studies. Two such accounts are particularly noteworthy. The first is the detailed assessment of the high-society neighbours he acquired when he first moved to Nethersole (July 1783, 8: 119-28). His distaste for the idle and hedonistic lifestyle of many of them is only thinly disguised, along with a certain dismay that these are the people with whom he will now be expected to maintain social connections. The second of these critiques concerns an analysis of the clerical establishment of Chichester, again written shortly after he arrived in the city. This section is merciless in its exposure of nepotism and of the absence of Christian charity, as the following paragraph devoted to the dean and his family illustrates:
“The Dean at this time was DR. Harward, a Man much fitter to be at the head of a Regiment than of a Chapter, being a very headstrong, passionate Man & much given to swearing; dealing out Oaths to the Virgers whenever he had the least cause of Complaint. He was also a very litigious Man, & was remarkably irreverent in his behaviour at Church, frequently talking during the Lessons &c. & sometimes amusing himself on Week Days with a Pencil and Paper &c. His second wife (a sister of Sir G. Young’s) was a genteel Woman, but being allied to a very turbulent & positive husband did not, by all accounts, live a very Happy life. There were also 2 unmarried daughters by the first Wife then living with them, both lively, frolicsome & rather hoydenish Girls, of about 2 or 3 & twenty. (11:91-92)”.
Marsh’s interests outside music were many and varied. He was long intrigued by astronomy and published several books on it, his interest encouraged by his meeting with William Herschel in Bath in the spring of 1782 (7:174). Marsh attained the rank of captain during the Napoleonic Wars, serving part-time with the sometimes unruly Chichester Volunteers. Marsh’s military career provides not only many compelling anecdotes but also valuable information on the structure of home defense at a time when England was threatened by invasions. Throughout his life, but particularly during his later years, Marsh took a great interest in charitable work, and the journals contain many passages on its administration. Marsh’s part in the foundation and early phases of nondenominational Lancastrian schools in Chichester for both boys and girls is particularly noteworthy.
Whether on foot or on horseback, by coach or by boat, Marsh was an assiduous traveller, and his accounts of innumerable journeys could well form the basis of a separate study. But only once did he leave Britain, and then as a child. In 1761 his father, then in command of the royal yacht Catherine, was ordered to Holland to bring the Dutch ambassador back to England. The child was taken on the trip, to his great joy-an experience that he later described as almost unequalled in the pleasure it gave him. To the boy’s further delight, the ambassador fell ill and was unable to undertake an immediate return, leaving the Marshes with sufficient time to tour Holland, a journey that is described in such vivid detail that it is difficult to believe that Marsh did not keep notes at the time, although he makes no mention of so doing.
Henceforth, opportunities for travel, whether for business or pleasure, were rarely absent for more than a few months together. He took the considerable hardships of travel in stride, for apart from recording that he usually developed a headache on the first day out (for which he found tea an unfailing cure), he was capable of reading and even composing in poorly sprung coaches traversing rough roads. After he moved to Chichester, there was at least one journey a year, usually through London but occasionally along the coast back to Kent to administer the estates he retained after selling Nethersole. There were many longer tours: to the fashionable spa resort in Bath, where he took the waters on several occasions and where Marsh first heard Haydn’s symphonies, several of which were in the repertoire of the Pump Room orchestra; and to his sister Mary’s home, first in Nottingham (from which a large family party toured the Peak District in Derbyshire in the summers of 1796 and 1801) and later in Southwell. But possibly the most memorable of all Marsh’s travel writing is to be found in his accounts of the long visits made to Wales and the Wye Valley in 1808 and to Scotland in the aftermath of Elizabeth’s death in 1819. Particularly in the earlier journey, the writing is consistently informed by a lively interest in the new places and people encountered.
To discover works of Brian Robins, especially his latest books, The John Marsh Journals, The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752-1828), Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant, NJ, 1998, and Catch and Glee Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, Boydell & Brewer, 2006, as others studies, you can connect here to the website www.earlymusicworld.com