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Playbill for the performance “For the Benefit of Miss Brickler” at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 16 May 1767. Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London..

16 May 1767 – A Covent Garden Anniversary

May 2017

This month marks the 250th anniversary of a seldom celebrated landmark in the annals of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.  The first known public performance – possibly anywhere in the world – on a “new Instrument call’d PIANO FORTE” took place on Saturday, 16 May 1767 at a benefit performance for the soprano Miss Brickler.  She sang a song from Arne’s oratorio Judith (1761) – almost certainly the air Wake my Harp! to melting Measures, which has an obligato for harp or harpsichord.  The pianist was the 22-year-old Charles Dibdin.  This extraordinarily versatile figure in late eighteenth century British music was the subject of our Exhibition of the Month for September 2014 (click here).  His Covent Garden career had begun with occasional chorus appearances from the age of 15, but his successful debut as composer, librettist and lead-singer was in The Shepherd’s Artifice on 12 May 1764, the first of more than 50 stage works for Covent Garden, Drury Lane and other London theatres.

Although the piano was invented in the early 1700s and examples had reached London by 1755, this is its first documented public appearance.  The first known solo performance, also in London, was at Hickford’s Rooms, Brewer Street on 7 April 1768, with James Hook playing a Concerto.  Two months later J. C. Bach was heard in a ‘Solo’ at the Thatched House Tavern, St James’s Street.

As a composer Dibdin is now mainly remembered for his song Tom Bowling (originally entitled Poor Tom, or The Sailor’s Epitaph).  This figured in his ‘table entertainment’ The Oddities, first performed at The Lyceum, Strand, 7 December 1789.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)