Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1 in B?; No. 3 in D; No. 4 in F; No. 6 in D.
A Conversation Sinfonie
Ian Graham-Jones, cond; Chichester Concert (period instruments)
ALTO 1017 (64:24)
Born the son of a Royal Navy captain, John Marsh (1752–1828) had his career chosen for him, and his early interest in music was discouraged. However, the young Marsh had little interest in the Royal Navy, and was successful in persuading his father to allow him to study for the bar; he was sent to a
solicitor in Romsey, where Marsh applied himself to not only the law books but also the music books. Over the next several years, Marsh relocated several times, eventually settling in Chichester in 1787. It was there that he spent the rest of his life pursuing his musical interests and rebuilding the faltering concert life in the city until his retirement in 1813.
Marsh was about as close to a Renaissance man as one could get. His other interests included campanology, astronomy, and military matters. He wrote articles on acoustics as well as theological and philosophical subjects; he organized the music-making in the cities in which he lived, planned programs, managed subscription concerts for four decades, and still had time to become one of the most prolific composers in 18th-century England. His compositions number over 350 and include almost every genre of the period, save opera, among these a dozen string quartets, three concertos, eight sonatinas for keyboard, and 37 symphonies. Comparatively little of his music was published during his lifetime, including nine of the symphonies and a single string quartet. What makes this even more remarkable is that Marsh’s formal training was as an attorney and not as a composer.
The numbering of Marsh’s nine published symphonies is somewhat confusing in that they are numbered in publication order and not in the order in which Marsh composed them. By far the most popular of these was his
for two orchestras. We are not dealing with two entirely separate ensembles, such as one encounters in three of the op. 18 symphonies of Johann Christian Bach. Rather, Marsh divides a single orchestra into upper and lower elements by instrument: one consists of two oboes, violins I and II, and bass I (cello and bassoon) while the other is made up of two horns, violas I and II, and bass II (cello and double bass). These are placed beside each other with the continuo cellos and keyboard in front and the timpani—used only to reinforce the
passages—between the first two groups.
A Conversation Sinfonie
can be found on two other recordings: ASV 216, which offers several symphonies by various 18th-century English composers played by the Hanover Band; and Chandos 10458, with five of Marsh’s symphonies performed by the London Mozart Players. Symphonies 1, 3, and 4, recorded here, are not duplicated on the Chandos disc, which holds symphonies 2, 7, and 8. Symphony No. 6 is common to the Chandos and this Alto.
This disc was originally recorded in 1989 and released as OCD 400 on the now-defunct Olympia label. Its reappearance is most welcome, as are the well-managed, sprightly, and wholly satisfying performances by the musicians of the Chichester Concert. The only drawback is the sound, which is a bit thin and dated by today’s standards. Otherwise, the performances, which are the only ones available at present, please the ear on first hearing.
There’s nothing great about this music, but it serves its purpose, and that is to introduce the uninitiated to another of Classical-era England’s most interesting and versatile composers. Oh, I almost forgot. At this price, it’s a no-brainer!
FANFARE: Michael Carter
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in B flat major by John Marsh
Written: 1783; England
Symphony no 6 in D major by John Marsh
Written: 1784; England
Symphony no 3 in D major by John Marsh
Written: circa 1770; England
Symphony no 4 in F major by John Marsh
Written: circa 1788; England
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