Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000

The Pleasures and Vexations of an Amateur Musician who Loved a Grand Crash

Nicholas Spice

4990 words
The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752-1828) 
edited by Brian Robins.
Pendragon, 797 pp., $76, December 1998, 0 945193 94 7
Show More
Show More

An item in the 11 May 1889 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette, quoted by Ruskin in a footnote to Praeterita, reports ‘extraordinary’ events in some allotments in Leicester. Every evening for several days a nightingale has been singing in a thorn bush above the mouth of a railway tunnel on the Midland mainline, attracting so large a crowd of listeners (some of whom have stayed regularly until the early hours of the morning) that the Chief Constable has seen fit to draft in a number of policemen ‘to maintain order and prevent damage’.

The emblematic potential of the scene – the ‘immortal bird’ of poetry perched pluckily on the fiery snout of the dragon of technological progress – is not lost on the newspaper reporter, who makes a point of the nightingale’s imperturbability in the face of the noise and smoke and steam of the trains that burst intermittently from the tunnel. For Ruskin, on the other hand, the events speak simply of the power of melody: the bird sings, the people listen.

A century later, a nightingale concert in the vegetable gardens of Leicester seems improbable, and we will most likely read Ruskin’s footnote with nostalgia, peering through it, as through a magic window, onto a scene from a lost world, and then reflecting on the corruption of the world that has replaced it: the nightingales long since flown, the silence of those Leicester evenings now thick with the whoosh and drone of the M1, the once innocent citizens no longer gathering spontaneously to pay rapt attention to a bird, but slumped at home watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? or surfing the Net for cheap holidays in Goa or the Gambia.

The silence has certainly gone. There are now few places in Britain where you can hear real silence unpolluted by mechanical or electronic noise. The background hum of traffic or electronic gadgetry (fridges, photocopiers, computers) has become the unnoticed ostinato to all our foreground melodies. The birds that do sing in our suburban gardens never break the silence, for there is no silence to break. Except in the remotest countryside, we cannot rid ourselves of the cotton wool in our auditory spaces, cannot experience the calm that ‘disturbs and vexes meditation with its strange and extreme silentness’. Coleridge wrote this line in 1798, a couple of years before John Marsh finished the first part of his History of My Private Life, and a reading of ‘Frost at Midnight’, along with some of the other ‘Conversation Poems’ – ‘The Aeolian Harp’, ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’, ‘The Nightingale’, for example – is rather a good way to imagine oneself into the quality of silence that John Marsh takes for granted in his account of life in the English provincial towns and villages – Romsey, Salisbury, Womanswold near Canterbury, Chichester – where he spent most of his long life.

The ‘owlet’s cry’, the ‘stilly murmur of the distant sea’, the ‘solitary humble-bee’ singing in the bean flower, the ‘creaking’ of a rook’s wings as it flies homewards across the evening sky, the ‘gentle breathings’ of a baby asleep in a cradle, the ‘eave-drops fall heard only in the trances of the blast’, the ‘swift jug jug’ of the nightingales: with delicate precision Coleridge articulates the drama of discrete sounds in a continuum of deep silence. In such a silence, musical sounds must have been intense, clear and sensuous: the sound of a bow drawn across an open string, of breath coaxing tone from a flute, of voices singing a simple cadence in four-part harmony. The loss from our daily lives of such a pure experience of sound in relation to silence is akin to the loss of the experience of light in relation to the dark. When, from 1783 to 1786, John Marsh lived on his estate at Nethersole between Margate and Canterbury, dinner engagements and concerts had to be arranged for the second and third quarters of the moon so that people could find their way home. Such was the concentration of events in this half of the lunar cycle that Marsh and his wife were ‘always rather glad than otherwise when the dark nights came that we might have a few evenings to ourselves’. When Marsh and his friends met of an evening to play music together, they did so by candlelight, a fire in the grate, the dance of light and shadow (on their faces and across the varnished surfaces of their stringed instruments) playing a counterpoint to the dance of sound and silence in the music.

In his essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, an elegy for the loss of chiaroscuro in Japanese life through the advent of electric lighting, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki writes: ‘the darkness in which the No is shrouded and the beauty that emerges from it make a distinct world of shadows which today can be seen only on the stage.’ In the West, the analogous world of sound and silence can now be experienced only in the concert hall, and this perhaps partly explains the extreme attentiveness of audiences at concerts of classical music. At the Festival Hall, recently, three thousand people sat devoutly through a recital of the second book of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues – two and a half hours of abstruse counterpoint. A month later, a packed English National Opera paid its silent respects to the St John Passion for one hundred minutes without breaking for a drink or a pee. Such feats of concentration and stillness, while common, are distinctly modern, and we would do well to remember this before we rush to idealise the past.

The ‘youths and maidens’, in Coleridge’s poem ‘The Nightingale’, forget the bird and ‘lose the deepening twilights of the spring/In ballrooms and hot theatres’. The people of Leicester who flocked to the Freemen’s Allotments on those evenings early in May 1889 were perhaps not, after all, for the most part card-carrying Keatsians. The fact that the police had to be called in ‘to maintain order and prevent damage’ suggests that things got pretty rowdy, which may be why the true twitchers had to hang around until two or three in the morning to get to hear the bird at all. Except when a serial killer or child abuser is moved from cell to court and back by windowless police van, we rarely think nowadays of the ‘mob’, that sudden swarming of restless humanity in search of ways to discharge energy. But before the age of electronic distraction, the mob was a regular feature of life, appearing as if from nowhere whenever there was something diverting afoot – a hanging, say, or an unscheduled recital by a nightingale. If it didn’t get what it came for, the mob turned quickly nasty. John Marsh recalls how, in October 1772, a bull-baiting in Romsey marketplace became a riot when the mayor and corporation sent in the constabulary to try and stop it. Marsh took it in his stride: ‘On this day (uninfected by the discordant proceedings in the market place) I composed my 2nd Duett (in G) No. 6 in my catalogue.’ In Salisbury, an officer of the Inniskillings so enraged the mob by instructing his men to protect a soldier who had been put in the pillory for sexually assaulting ‘Mr Fiddes’s Maid’, that the people ‘began to pelt the officers instead of the culprit’. Quite innocuous diversions could get out of hand. On 11 August 1784, Marsh and his wife went to Chelsea to watch the Chevalier de Morét launch a balloon. When the launch failed, ‘the machine being too weighty and clumsily made to ascend’, the mob ‘broke in and demolish’d it’ and the chevalier had to make a quick exit on horseback to avoid ‘being demolish’d too’.

For Marsh, it goes without saying that the mob is made up of social riff-raff. But his descriptions of public events in polite society show that the middle classes were not above a bit of rioting themselves when the mood took them. A trip to the theatre in Salisbury in the winter of 1777 turns dangerous when hostility between the gentry in the gallery and some soldiers on the stage develops into a full-scale fight. A major gets his sword broken and is threatened with eviction over the edge of the gallery. The ensuing mayhem causes ‘much screaming amongst the ladies, many of whom were lifted out of the boxes into the pitt (as the shortest way out of the house)’. Concerts were less riotous, but by no means the religiously orderly events that they are today. If the people were displeased by the music, they hissed loudly. At a concert of glees in Salisbury in 1779, a change in the advertised programme caused what Marsh describes as ‘the greatest hubbub I ever knew in that room’. Even the performers were ready to shove and push to make sure of a good position on the stage: ‘young White, son of the keeper of the county gaol … & a pretty good player … being willing to secure the uppermost place for himself, jostled me against the door at the end of the orchestra where I had but little enjoyment of the concert.’

In his wonderfully detailed study Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn, Simon McVeigh suggests that at public concerts ‘serious attention to the music was a rarity.’ Turning up on time was definitely bad form. ‘On account of you I almost heard the opera,’ Groucho snarls at his too prompt cab driver, a reproach one imagines often voiced by fashionable types to their coachmen for delivering them too sharply to Ranelagh Gardens where, according to Horace Walpole, it was the done thing to arrive two hours after the music had finished. If you did get to hear any music, you were quite at liberty to talk through it, and if you got really restless you could simply stroll about. For Marsh, as for other serious musicians of his age, this walking and talking was a constant source of irritation. At a concert in Salisbury in 1779, there was, as he puts it, ‘such a chatteration during the 1st Act’ that he and some other musicians refused to play on, ‘which much reduc’d the band’ so that the second act ‘went off very flat and meagre’.

In the small towns where Marsh lived (Salisbury had a population of around seven thousand when he moved there in 1776), concerts, along with assemblies (or balls), were a chief form of public entertainment for the gentry and the middle classes. They provided an important stage for the rites and dramas of the community – for the marrying off of daughters, for instance. At concerts, and the dances which often followed them (carrying on well into the early hours), girls could be shown off, ‘flirtations’ begun, courtships developed. Since everyone knew each other, observing who was new and what was noteworthy in the public parade must have been a big part of the fun on these occasions, though the atmosphere must also have been pretty charged at times. Fallings-out seem to have been common. Music itself was a frequent cause of dissension among the men who took part.

These ‘squabbles’, as Marsh calls them – usually about points of precedence and who played where in the orchestra – were as trivial as tiffs in a primary school playground, but their consequences could be serious. When young Marsh usurps Mr Shaw’s cello and muscles in on the bass line of a song, he almost ends up fighting a duel. Mr Burgat, the Salisbury dancing master, who got up everyone’s nose at the assemblies for being ‘too particular & officious in enforcing the rules of country dances & also too peremptory in his manner of desiring ladies to stand up, that happen’d to sit down for a minute or two to rest’, quit Salisbury for good after a punch-up with a Captain Mitchell of the Dragoons whom Burgat thought had been talking during a performance of his violin concerto. After falling out with Mr Walond, the Chichester Cathedral organist (Walond would sabotage Marsh’s music by playing it too fast at services), Marsh didn’t speak to him again for 25 years. The dispute between Mr Parry and Mr Corfe over who should succeed Dr Stevens as organist of Salisbury Cathedral split the community and blighted its musical life for a decade.

Generally speaking, Marsh liked to keep clear of this scrapping and feuding. In the Corfe-Parry debacle he signed a declaration of neutrality so that he could continue to play with the musicians in both camps. He deplored anything that got in the way of the music-making that was his overriding passion in life. The births, even the deaths, of his children, were not always reason enough to forego a musical pleasure: ‘As to myself,’ he writes, recalling the death of his third son aged five months, ‘had I in conformity w’th the rigid customs of the world kept moping within doors & refrain’d from indulging myself in my principal delight & lost an opportunity that occur’d in my then situation, but once a year, of hearing the first London performers, my so doing co’d not but have savor’d of hypocrisy, & in fact wo’d have been making bad worse.’

To understand the urgency with which Marsh seized any chance to hear or make music, we have to imagine what it was like to live in a world without music on tap, when to hear music at all you had to get somebody else to play it or you had to play it yourself. Finding musicians good enough to play with could be difficult. Standards of playing were everywhere uneven and often poor (many a ‘vile scraper’ and ‘rough bassoon’ passes dolefully across these pages). Salisbury in the 1770s had a thriving musical community, but when he lived in Romsey, Marsh had to coax music from his surroundings like a gardener working unpromising soil. Just to play duets or trios properly was a luxury to be had only in Gosport or Southampton.

‘Who plays the piano today?’ asks Roland Barthes. ‘Playing has ceased to exist.’ Well, actually, it hasn’t. But the rhetorical point stands. In the age before radio and the gramophone, to satisfy a desire for music required much more of an active effort than it does nowadays, when for most people music is predominantly a passive pleasure. In Marsh’s time, not just the vitality of musical culture, but its very existence, in any place outside the capital, depended on the drive of individuals. If no one got things going, there was no music. Wherever Marsh lived, he became the galvanising force in local music, organising the subscription concerts, leading the orchestras, setting up and running private concert societies and catch clubs, helping out as organist in cathedral services and getting involved in the repair and replacement of the cathedral organs. When he left a place, the musical life tended to go into decline.

The source of this energy was perhaps a deep but unexamined disappointment in Marsh at not having become a professional musician. From an early age, it was clear to him that music was what his existence required, but professional music was never allowed to enter the question of what he would do with his life. His father, a minor sea captain, wanted him to go to sea, but relented on condition that Marsh became a lawyer. So at 16 he was articled to a Mr Damian in Romsey, though his mind was never on the job. Mr D. would tease young Marsh in front of the girls for having ‘his head full of crotchets and quavers instead of the law’. Later, Marsh would frequently lose track of the proceedings in court, his mind ‘generally and involuntarily at work in carrying on some musical composition then in embryo’. Once he came into his inheritance, at the age of 29, he let his thoughts run ‘in their favourite channel’ without restraint. But he still kept his hand in as a lawyer and managed his estate shrewdly (taking an interest in the well-being of his tenants, in the rearing of sheep, in the maintenance of woodland) and fathered a large family, to which he seems to have been unflaggingly devoted in his own bluff sort of way.

In England in the late 18th century the gap between amateur musicians (‘gentlemen players’) and professionals (‘professors’) was definite but not impassable. At the main provincial festivals musicians from London, even the most glamorous stars, played alongside local professionals and the best of the local amateurs. Marsh met and played with many of the leading musicians of his day, and even occasionally heard his own music performed by them. In the first half of his life, he was a tireless composer, writing anthems, glees, works for organ, string quartets and symphonies (more symphonies indeed than any English composer before or since). By the time he was 30, he was already known in London as ‘a great musical amateur’ and ‘leader of a band in the country’. At concerts in the capital, it was not unusual for him to be invited to join in. Once, when Wilhelm Cramer was late turning up, Marsh was asked to lead the first overture at a meeting of the Anacreontic Society, the élite London concert club. Cramer was one of the top violinists in England, rated with Salomon and Viotti, so Marsh got a hell of a fright: ‘I sho’d have as soon thought of making a speech in the House of Commons as leading such a band.’

Marsh lived at the end of an age of musical innocence. In the years between 1770 and 1800 when he was most active, musicians were still happily free of the burden of the past, whether in the shape of the anxiety of influence – the battling for creative identity against powerful individual forebears – or a generalised unease at the achievements of former times. Perhaps because of its low status as an art and its practical function in society, music developed a past much later than the visual arts or literature. The oppression felt in John Henry Fuseli’s drawing ‘The artist moved by the grandeur of ancient ruins’ (1778-80), in which he pictures himself with his head in his hands next to the giant foot of the statue of Constantine, is simply absent from contemporary musical culture. While Reynolds, in the Discourses, grapples with ‘the energy of Michaelangelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique’, and Wordsworth, in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, is in mortal combat with Milton and Pope, Haydn and Mozart are concentrating on purely technical issues and the challenge of staying fashionable.

By the end of the 18th century some sort of musical canon had established itself, but it was extraordinarily patchy and didn’t constitute any serious drag on the energies of the present. By far the most popular of composers in England at that time was Handel, who had died in 1750, and Corelli’s sonatas were a staple of the chamber music repertoire. There are more than three hundred references to Handel in the index to the Marsh Journals (eighty of them to the Messiah); for Corelli there are seventy. Purcell gets six and Pergolesi four. Of Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Gibbons, Lassus or Monteverdi – not a mention. And the only Bach Marsh knows is J.C. Outside the connoisseurs’ concert societies in London – the Academy of Ancient Music and the Concert of Ancient Music – no one took a systematic interest in the music of the past. Musical energy was directed to what was new and to what came next. Marsh loved nothing better than ‘a grand crash’, by which he meant a really good jam session with his musical mates where he could try out his latest compositions or the new pieces he had bought or copied out on one of his frequent trips to London. This was music as living discourse, as argument and exploration, music made not suffered.

The turning of Western musical culture away from the future towards the past was a creeping development of the 19th century. It went with a progressive mystification and sacralisation of music and with the promotion of music from number three to number one art form. English society in the late 18th century was notoriously secular. The beginnings of the mystical-sensual trend that was to end up in Wagner are discernible perhaps in the grandiose Handel Commemorations in the early 1780s, concerts in Westminster Abbey attended by two thousand people at a time and played by upwards of five hundred musicians (a typical orchestra of the time had twenty players). Marsh’s descriptions of these events evoke quite wonderfully the meeting of the coming sensibility with the one that would soon be in decline:

This symphony with its beautiful modulation having continued some time at length the whole force of the orchestra with all the voices, full organ, trumpets, trombones, double drums etc burst upon us all at once, in the words ‘Zadoc the Priest’ etc the force & effect of w’ch almost took me off my legs & caused the blood to forsake my cheeks. As to the succeeding movement ‘And the people rejoic’d’ etc with the following chorus ‘God save the King’ it was all ecstasy; notwithstanding which I co’d not but observe that many ladies etc were totally inattentive to it seeming solely occupied in looking (with their backs to the orchestra) at their Majesties & the nobility.

The Romantic soul may be beginning to stir, but it still has to compete with this:

Next came the maids of honour etc in their great hoops, which so incomoded them that some of them being obliged to get over the back seats to come at those in front of the box provided for them, it was observ’d in a paper of the next day that they display’d their understandings to the admiring prebendaries just under them, one of whom spectacled on the occasion.

The manuscript of the Marsh Journals disappeared after his death in 1828, re-emerging only in 1990 at an auction. It consists of 37 volumes and runs to 6704 pages. The present edition is an abridgement of the first part of Marsh’s History of My Private Life, in which he wrote up the diaries he had kept since he was 13. Brian Robins, the editor of this meticulously scholarly volume (the footnotes alone comprise a small musical encyclopedia), has selected in favour of the musical content of the journals. Still, this book must be one of the fullest records in print of daily life in late 18th-century England. Till now, Marsh has been a resource only for scholars (though there’s an excellent synopsis of the journals in John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination), but even in the more accessible form of this present edition it will never be widely read, for its value stands in inverse proportion to its readability. This is thick description with a vengeance, and getting through it is like trudging across a field of clay on a wet November day: ‘On the 3d my wife sister and I went to a ball at Mr Harris’s, at which were about 16. Couple in his music room, & 6 card tables. At this, besides dancing 6 country dances I for the 1st time in my life danc’d a cottillon which dance was frequently attempted at the Assembly, but seldom well done.’

It would have been a bad mistake, however, to have distilled the ‘good’ bits in Marsh to make the book more readable. Laundry lists can tell us more of the past than love letters. It is the ordinariness in Marsh’s narrative that gives it its authenticity. We should read Marsh as Johnson ‘read’ the beach on the Island of Inch Kenneth, meandering along and occasionally picking up a shell ‘for its glossy beauty’. By suffering the longueurs of the narrative, we experience on our pulses the slow pace of life, its repetitiveness, the boredom and triviality of so much of it. And at the end, we know that what we have read is true because it has been left so artlessly unfashioned. Being literate but not literary, Marsh sets things down that a more arch and sophisticated diarist would have left out. He has a habit, for instance, of telling how much everything cost. Cumulatively, this is fascinating; we learn, for example, that to hire a leading soloist for the Salisbury Festival cost 100 guineas, the same as a bed of tulips or a brand new coach, ten times the annual wage of a coachman and a tenth of the entire annual income of Marsh’s country estate, five times what it cost to buy a chamber organ and twelve thousand times what you had to pay a boy to work the organ bellows on a sunny afternoon.

The injudicious detail of Marsh’s descriptions can produce strikingly visual and vivid effects. His long account of trying to get breakfast on a Sunday morning in the City of London has the riveting extension of a good film sequence. A little later, travelling with his wife in a diligence to London towards evening, he decides at Shooters Hill to hole up at an inn for the night, ‘Blackheath being then very much infected with highwaymen’. The night is nonetheless a disturbed one:

as the wind happening to be very high & the house (from its elevated situation) much exposed to it, the sashes of our room windows (w’ch were very loose) made such a noise, in addition to the wind whistling without, that we co’d not get a wink of sleep till at length I got out of bed & wedg’d them up as well as I could in the dark with paper.

In such passages we join the stream of past time, travel with it for a while, and when we come away we know that people really did exist before us and what it may have felt like to be them.

An abiding impression of Marsh’s Journals is of life as chaotic but uneventful, provisional but samey, unregulated but conventional, dangerous yet small scale, intense yet narrow. Death and disease stalk the everyday, accidents are common and maybe fatal, murderers swing from gibbets by the side of country lanes, the poor starve. Yet the evenings are long and quiet and dark and there’s not a lot to do and only ever the same people to talk to, so how about another hand of cards or some songs at the fortepiano? If his brothers are imprisoned in the American wars or he loses his little daughter to a terrible deforming dropsy, Marsh tells these things without privileging them, in the same breath almost and with the same weight as he might tell us how his pocket watch was stolen or how he left half a chicken at an inn that he had looked forward to eating on the road.

Marsh’s account is a sustained hymn (the more moving for being quite unintended as such) to making do with what’s there and making the most of it. Music is inseparable from this humdrum, trivial, frightening life, and it shares in life’s oddity and provisionality and chaotic comical character. In Southampton in 1779, a gallery holding the orchestra collapses at the end of the concert, hurling the players hugger-mugger into a heap while the conductor rolls about on the floor beside himself with laughter. In Salisbury, a little man who nobody knows sets himself up to play in the orchestra perched on his violin case, but in the middle of a piece the case slips from under him and he falls backwards, disappearing into an open cello case. After that evening, he is never seen again. A carefully arranged performance of the ‘Eccho Catch’ – ‘the eccho voices being placed behind a hedge’ – is spoiled when some ducks waddle through the middle of it, quacking. A German insists on interrupting the chamber music to smoke his pipe (‘w’ch took to pieces in joints’), so he is prevailed upon to smoke while he is playing, which he does with great aplomb. On a specially cold January evening, a Mr Payne, who likes his gin and water to help him play quartets, goes out for a piss, but not wanting to get cold he pisses out of the back door, spraying the step, which then freezes over, so that Mrs Marsh, who is the first to go out the next morning, slips on the frozen piss and hurts her back.

John Marsh finished the first part of his History of My Private Life on his 50th birthday, in 1802. Thereafter, he added appendices which took his account to within a few weeks of his death in 1828. According to Brian Robins, Marsh’s musical activities fell away somewhat after the turn of the century. In particular, he did less composing. Already in 1782 he is rueful about the difficulty of playing some Haydn symphonies to anything like the same effect as the ‘band of professors’ he has heard play them in Bath. The complexities of the new music are getting beyond him.

The age of innocence was passing away. Born two years after the death of J.S. Bach and dying a year after Beethoven, John Marsh yet managed to spend the best part of his musical life unaware of either of them, a state both impoverished and blessed. A year after Marsh’s death, the Berlin Singakademie gave a revival performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. By then, the great Beethovenian foot had already crushed what remained of the old musical world, and Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Berlioz, among others, were sitting in the ruins with their heads deep in their hands.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences