John Marsh



John Marsh was one of the most prolific composers in eighteenth-century England. His œuvre spans nearly all the genres of the period, with the exception of opera. At a conservative estimate, his compositions number well over 350, among them thirtynine symphonies, a ‘Military Symphony’ for wind band, twelve string quartets, three concertos (one for two French horns), twelve concertos ‘in the ancient style’, eight sonatinas for keyboard, organ music, including over sixty voluntaries, anthems, hymns, chants and psalm settings, and over forty glees and songs. Yet comparatively little of his music was published in his lifetime: of his major instrumental compositions, just nine symphonies, three fi nales for orchestra and one string quartet. All that remains in manuscript is a handful of glees.

We have a clear record of his total output, however, from his extensive journals: the original and complete thirty-seven volume diary of his life came to light in 1991. ‘The History of my Private Life’, which occupies the first twenty-two volumes and ceases at his fiftieth birthday, is published as The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752 –1828), edited by Brian Robins [Pendragon Press, 1998]. To his journals Marsh appends an ‘Account of my Musical Compositions & Publications to this time’.

Marsh’s prolifi c output is all the more remarkable since he was not trained as a professional musician but as a lawyer. He had a full and active life as an inveterate traveller in Britain; he managed his estates, and had interests throughout his life in campanology, astronomy, and military matters. He was well read and wrote many treatises and articles on a range of theological and philosophical subjects as well as on music and acoustics. He organised much of the music-making in the cities of southern England where he lived, planning programmes and taking charge of subscription concerts virtually continuously for some forty years. He played the organ, deputising at services, and continued a busy social and family life as well as working for charities in his later years.

Born in Dorking, Surrey, the son of a naval captain, he moved at the age of sixteen to Gosport, near Portsmouth, where he took an active part in music by playing the violin in concerts. He was soon articled to a solicitor in Romsey, at the same time teaching himself the spinet, organ, viola, cello and oboe, and composing his first symphony. Following his marriage in 1774 he moved to the flourishing cathedral town of Salisbury, where he met personalities such as Carl Stamitz and the violinist Wilhelm Cramer.

Symphony No. 8 in G major (1778)

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegro

It was here that Marsh composed four of his nine published symphonies. These extant symphonies are somewhat confusingly numbered in publication order rather than by date of composition. Thus his first published symphony – the ninth symphony in his catalogue, No. 8 in G major (1778) and the last to be printed, did not appear until 1800. Published as No. 3 of ‘Overtures for Country Concerts’, it shows, notably in the first movement, clear influences of Abel and J.C. Bach. The ‘country dance’ rondo of the third movement became deservedly popular, appearing in several arrangements.

Conversation Symphony for Two Orchestras in E flat major (1778)

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Andante
3. Allegretto

In the same year Marsh composed his Conversation Symphony for Two Orchestras in E flat major which remained a firm favourite for several decades to come. The full title reads ‘A Conversation Sinfonie, for two Orchestras upon a new Plan; The whole being compleat in the 12 following parts, viz. Two Violins, Two Tenors, Three Basses, Two Hautboys, Two French Horns & Kettle Drums, composed by Jn Marsh’. Published in 1784 and advertised under the name of ‘Sharm’ (an anagram of the composer’s name), the work received twenty-two performances in the composer’s lifetime. Unlike the J.C. Bach symphonies for double orchestra published in 1781, which have two complete groups of strings, Marsh takes the unusual step of dividing a single orchestra into the upper and lower textures thus –

Orchestra I: 2 oboes, violins 1 and 2, basso 1
Orchestra II: 2 horns, violas 1 and 2, basso 2

– the whole being linked by a continuo group of violoncello (with harpsichord) as well as timpani which reinforce the tutti sections. Marsh provides a diagram to illustrate the layout of the two groups, from which it will be seen that the ‘basso 1’ part is a cello with bassoon and ‘basso 2’ is a cello with double-bass. The interplay not only of the two orchestral groupings but also of solo and tutti writing in this work is uncommon, and the particular division of the orchestra in this way appears to be unique. The use of repeats in the binary structure of the first movement marks a change of approach from the previous symphony, and the influence of baroque style is evident in the cadence linking the Andante to the rondo finale.

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major (1780)

1. Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro spirituoso

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major followed two years later, and although still in three movements and scored for the standard eight-part texture of 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings, it is his most substantial work yet. For the first time he employs a full sonataform structure with repeated exposition in the first movement. The second, marked by the composer Largo 8 in a Bar, is possibly a warning against the practice of theatre bands taking slow movements too fast, a comment which Marsh makes in his journal about a performance of the symphony at Drury Lane Theatre in 1784. The finale is likewise cast in sonata form, though without a repeat.

Having inherited a large estate near Canterbury, Marsh moved there in 1783 and assumed responsibility for reviving concert life in the city. This gave him the opportunity to try out more of his own compositions, but he found the upkeep of the estate a strain and disliked the social snobbery he encountered. In 1787 he moved again, to a town house in Chichester close to the cathedral, where he remained for the rest of his life. Soon after his arrival he was asked to take over the management of the Chichester subscription concerts, a duty he fulfilled until 1813 when he gave up many of his musical activities, devoting more time to his family, his writings, and his travels throughout Britain.

Symphony No. 7 in E flat major (La Chasse) (1790)

1. Andante. The Hunter’s Call in the Morning and gradually assembling together
2. Allegretto. Setting out from Home (trotting and occasionally cantering) – The Fox discover’d, &c
3. Allegro. Chasse

It was in Chichester in 1790 that he composed his only programmatic symphony, his twenty-fourth, published as No. 7 in E flat major (La Chasse) in 1800. It is in three main sections, the descriptive titles, printed only in the first violin part, headed: ‘The Hunter’s Call in the Morning and gradually assembling together’ (Andante), ‘Setting out from Home (trotting and occasionally cantering)’ (Allegretto) which leads into ‘The Fox discover’d, &c.’ and concluding with the final 6/8 movement simply headed ‘Chasse’ (Allegro). Marsh appears to have had such a work in mind for some while and sketched it out during a bout of illness. It was tried through on 31 December of that year at a private concert with Marsh’s son John (aged 15) playing a ripieno violin. The symphony continued to receive regular performances in Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury for the next twenty years, the last recorded in the journals being in 1810.

Symphony No. 6 in D major (1796)

1. Largo maestoso – Allegro spirituoso
2. Andante
3. Minuetto & Trio. Allegro
4. Allegro scherzando

In Marsh’s next (and last) published work in the genre, the four-movement Symphony No. 6 in D major, his grandest work to date, scored with added flute, bassoons, trumpets and timpani, he acknowledges his indebtedness to Haydn. In his journal for June 1796 he wrote:

I then began composing a Grand Symphony in D upon the plan of Haydn’s modern ones (the subject of the principal movement of w’ch I had for some days before in my head), being my 27th Symphony & No 56 in my catalogue of instrumental compositions.

Marsh tried out the work twice during one of his visits to the Midlands that summer, and later in a Chichester subscription concert of the season in October. As this is certainly Marsh’s most impressive published symphony, its relative lack of popularity – he only records two subsequent performances in 1798 – is surprising. This is the only printed symphony with a slow introduction, clearly on the Haydn model. The motor rhythms and the short wind solos of the first movement are typically Haydnesque, although there is no repeat of the exposition, and the monothematic style of the Andante is a noteworthy feature. The unusual cadenza is perhaps modelled on the style of Pleyel’s Sinfonia concertante or perhaps more directly the second movement of Haydn’s ‘Miracle’ Symphony, No. 96 in D, both of which were first played in London in 1792.

It is clear that the lack of popularity of Marsh’s music outside his immediate circles was due to his status as an amateur, a fact he fully acknowledged. Yet what is astonishing is the wide variety of styles that he exploits in these works. Characterised by their tunefulness and artful scoring for wind and brass, they may be said to compare favourably with many of his more ‘professional’ continental contemporaries.

Ian Graham-Jones (2008)