chapter  14
30 Pages

‘The harmony of heaven’: John Marsh and provincial music

The memory of Thomas Bewick endures, albeit in sanitized, commercalized form. Purged of its reformist associations and transformed into the celebration of a rural idyll, his work adorns tea towels and toasters as well as works of rustic nostalgia; his vignettes assuage the pastoral longings of the urban sophisticates who read the New York Review of Books and they are taken, in both Britain and North America, to embody Englishness. His birthplace, Cherryburn House, is now a museum managed by the National Trust. He has become an official part of Britain’s ‘national heritage’. No such popular recollection survives of John Marsh (1752-1828), a contemporary

of Bewick who, in a very different medium and place, made a vital contribution to the cultural life of the English provinces. Marsh was a musician, an amateur and a gentleman, not a ‘man of business’ whose livelihood depended upon his skill and craft, which may explain why his reputation has not survived his lifetime. English composers of the eighteenth century – once we except that naturalized Englishman George Frideric Handel, born in Germany and trained in Italy – are best known for their obscurity, remembered only as the shadowy inhabitants of a penumbra between the dazzling achievement of the great seventeenth-century Italians and the brilliance of the Germans and Austrians – Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven – who shaped classical music as we now know it. A vibrant English musical tradition of church music, embodied in the works of such sixteenth-and seventeenth-century composers as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons, had suffered nearly as severe a blow as the visual arts from the hostility of the Puritans. Eighteenth-century English composers could not even be praised as distinctively English, minor figures who nevertheless developed a national idiom, for the notably English form of the day, the oratorio, was dominated by the substantial figure of Handel. English concertos, symphonies and chamber works appeared to derive from the much better-known compositions of continental composers or, like the galant style, to have entered Britain from such German and Italian musical centres as Mannheim or Genoa. Even London, the great metropolis, seemed musically provincial: a lucrative stopping place for the many performers and composers from Italy and Germany, the centre of a vibrant concert culture, but not a nursery of native genius and composition. If the standing of British musicians was not of the highest, the status of an amateur

musician like John Marsh was even lower. English musicians resented the presence of performers who believed that their social standing compensated for their limited abilities or entitled them to embellish works in a way that might well detract from the performance. As the West Country composer William Jackson remarked, à propos of that passionate musical amateur Thomas Gainsborough, ‘How often do presumptive amateurs

spoil the success of a concert by contributing their efforts under the mistaken conviction that they are adding to the enjoyment of the affair, whereas in reality they are only giving offence to the unfortunate composer of the music?’ Such remarks, made about a good friend but a less than average performer, suggest that it is fortunate for amateurs that surviving comments by professionals on their performance are so few. British commentators on genteel education assigned musical skill a low status on the list

of polite accomplishments. John Locke ranked music in ‘the last place’ of gentlemanly talents because ‘it wastes so much of a young Man’s time, to gain but a moderate Skill in it, and engages often in such odd Company’; other writers viewed musical performance, being essentially a manual skill, unbefitting for a gentleman, and potentially effeminate because it might mean associating with unmanly foreigners. The study of music as a science was legitimate, but the passions aroused by musical performance were more troubling. As one commentator remarked, ‘don’t over-rate these Talents, nor place ’em among the first Rate Qualifications of a Gentleman; for in reality they only fit you up for a modish Address and a female Entertainment. Let a Man rather trim up his Mind, than his Body: Those Embellishments are more noble and rich that lie in the Brain, than those that sink into the Feet, or perch on the Finger’s End.’ The comparatively low status of amateur music-making is revealed in this derogation of

it as a predominantly female accomplishment or one associated with female seduction. Though this was not always true of every sort of musical performance, playing the keyboard and singing were considered, together with proficiency in French, needlework and dancing as fashionable skills whose mastery displayed young women to men in the most attractive and desirable light. The ability to play the harpsichord or pianoforte, to sing in tune and with feeling, was a requisite for young women in search of a husband, for music-making was part of the rituals of courtship. Musical ability was subordinate to the imperatives of the marriage market; excessive talent was deemed too showy or demonstrative, appropriate for certain professional performers but unsuitable in an attractively demure young woman. All this did not stop men and women from playing, but it affected the status of music

when compared with other genteel arts. The contrast between the reputations of the ‘gentleman-fidler’ and the ‘man of letters’ could hardly be more pronounced. In the eighteenth, as in later centuries, the British man of letters, whether amateur or professional, towers over the diminutive but numerous figures populating the musical landscape. Amateur musicians were just as common as minor literati – perhaps more so – but their achievement has remained obscure. In most instances they did not compose music, though many arranged the work of others, an important skill before the advent of recordings when hearing music depended on live performance. And new compositions, like those of John Marsh, often did not survive their composers. A great deal of music circulated in manuscript but was not published; a century later, when English music publishing flourished as never before, prevailing tastes disregarded these eighteenth-century compositions for the more fashionable giants of European romanticism and for the folkways of ballad and song. But, if English music contributed little to the evolving performance of European

classical music and is easily forgotten, when we turn to the grander accounts of Mozart’s precocious genius, Haydn’s shaping of the modern symphony and Beethoven’s tortured greatness, we should not neglect Britain’s flourishing tradition of composition and performance. Composing and playing music were emphatically not the prerogative of

professionals, though it depended on their skills and services, but was stitched together by a heterogeneous band of amateurs, woven out of the fabric of provincial social life. The result was often not of the latest fashion, but it was a collaborative endeavour whose satisfactions flowed as much from the sociability of music-making as from the quality of its performance. Musical talent contributed to the social pleasure of collective appreciation, to the creation of harmony. This was not always easy in the small, tightly knit communities of gentry and rich

merchant families in English provincial towns. For music, more than any other cultural activity, defined the social realm of those elites. Music-making was a badge of gentility, a sign of refinement enacted in private drawing rooms and public assemblies on convivial occasions when the local ‘quality’ gathered together. Tradesmen and artisans might occasionally be found in bands and musical circles playing fashionable music, but not often, and the barriers to their entry were social. Making music also placed a burden on the pocket. Though string and wind instruments

were not expensive – a West Country physician, Claver Morris, paid £2 and £3.5s. for two violins and £5 for a violoncello in the first decades of the century; he had earlier spent £1.7s. for an oboe and £2.10s for a bassoon – harpsichords and pianos were costly. At mid-century the price of the former ranged, according to the instrument’s quality and complexity, between thirty-five and fifty guineas. The latter were even more expensive: by the end of the century, when pianos had become generally available, a grand piano cost about seventy guineas and the cheapest uprights still fetched twenty. Of course, instruments could be purchased more cheaply on the thriving secondhand market, but when the cost of lessons was added to that of the instrument, the outlay was far greater than that for an amateur artist or author and more than what was needed to accumulate a decent collection of books, prints or even paintings (Figure 14.1). Concert-going was also not cheap. As in London, most concerts in the provinces were

organized as series for which one had to pay a full season’s subscription. Even clubs in which enthusiastic amateurs played and sang catches (a round or canon in unison for three or more male voices) or glees (simply harmonized songs for the same voices but without accompaniment) charged substantial dues. The catch clubs in Salisbury and Chichester, for example, required a fee of 7/6d. a quarter in the 1770s. Grand musical occasions, such as the St Cecilia’s Day concerts held in Salisbury Cathedral and in the assembly rooms, charged entrance prices in excess of the seasonal fee to a subscription series. In these socially circumscribed venues, proper conduct was at a premium. Failure to

bow, the unauthorized borrowing of a colleague’s instrument, disputes over who should lead a band and what was the correct tempo could all provoke vituperative hostilities, which subverted the integrity and threatened the very existence of the social circles on which the musical societies depended. Harmony was the object but discord was often the result.