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Charles Dibdin. Engraving by Benjamin Smith after Thomas Kearsley. Published by Benjamin Smith and John Thompson, London, 1801.

Charles DIBDIN (1745-1814)

September 2014

(baptized 4 March 1745, Southampton; d.25 July 1814, London)

Composer, poet, playwright, actor and singer, Dibdin must count as one of the most prolific and versatile of English song writers.  As a performer he is of further historical significance as player of “a new instrument called piano-forte” in the piano’s first known public appearance in England (Covent Garden, 16 May 1767).

The 12th child of a parish clerk in Southampton, Diddin was taught by two successive Winchester Cathedral organists but claimed to have learned most from close study of Corelli’s concertos and Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie. He published his Op.1 A Collection of English Songs and Cantatas at the age of 18 and a year later appeared at Covent Garden in the leading role of The Shepherd’s Artifice, a pastoral for which he had written the words and music.

More than 50 stage works followed, for Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Sadler’s Wells and other theatres – Dibdin habitually fell out with managements.  The most enduring were The Padlock (Drury Lane, 1768) and The Waterman (Little Theatre 1774).  In the former Dibdin had his greatest stage triumph as the negro servant Mungo.

The songs for which Dibdin is best remembered were however composed for a series of one-man shows or ‘Table Entertainments’ given first in the provinces and then in London from 1789 to 1805.  For this purpose he built his own small theatre in Leicester Place, The Sans-Souci in 1792.  The hundreds of witty, tuneful songs which resulted included numerous sea-songs such as Tom Bowling and Nothing like Grog and ballads on just about every topical event. “Mr D. had a Baritone Voice”, wrote his friend Dr W Kitchiner, “with enough falsetto to sing any Song.  He had a remarkably distinct articulation; … every word he uttered was easily intelligible, for he had that sensible Idea about Vocal Music, that the true intention of it is, to render the Words more impressive.”

Just as remarkable was Dibdin’s self-accompaniment.  For this he had a specially-built Polyharmonicon, a combined piano and organ with percussion effects.  “Mr Dibdin was an extremely neat performer on the piano-forte … He knew exactly the powers of his instrument, and … produced an effect which, we believe, was never heard before, and may not again.”

His books published at the same period include A Complete History of the English Stage (1797-1800), The Professional Life of Mr Dibdin (1803) and several musical textbooks.  From the 1780s he became publisher of his own songs.