Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Charles Dibdin 1745 - 1814

1. Charles Dibden

Charles Dibdin 1745 - 1814

1.    Charles Dibdin (1745–1814) by unknown artist. Oil on canvas, 740 x 610 mm Original in the Royal College of Music, London.   [Image in the public domain.]

Although his opera Love in the City (1767) failed, his music was praised, and Dibdin began to make a name for himself. His greatest early success was The Padlock (1768) and there was music for many local theatres. In 1778 Dibdin was appointed the exclusive composer for Covent Garden at a salary of £10 per week. However, his relations with managers and performers were poor, and the scandal of his liaison with one of the chorus singers caused a great deal of turmoil. According to his account he was the victim of 'ill-treatment and breach of faith.'

Dibdin left Covent Garden and became one of several parties to build the Circus Theatre (later the Surrey Theatre). Dibdin was appointed sole manager for life and was to be paid one fourth of the profits. However, personal conflicts again arose and Dibdin withdrew from the Surrey in 1785. He then entered a period of financial turbulence. He turned his hand to writing and began a weekly periodical, The Devil, which failed.

Dibdin decided to try his fortune in India. His brother, Tom, had died in the India trade (Charles wrote 'Tom Bowling' in Tom's honour after Tom's death at sea), but Charles hoped to be received by Tom's friends and connections. To raise money for the voyage he travelled throughout England giving performances of his music. However, the tour was not profitable. Destitute, Dibdin sold the rights to his music. He sold The Waterman, which had made two hundred pounds, for two guineas.

In 1788 Dibdin sailed for India but was driven by the winds into Torbay. At Torbay he gave a series of 'Entertainments' with great success and decided to return to London. He resumed his tours of England, Scotland and Ireland to acclaim, wrote music and performed Entertainments named the Whim of the Moment, Poor Jack, The Oddities and others. In addition to the income from performing, Dibdin sold the music to publishers. By his own account he made more money in four months than he had in his whole life.

Dibdin opened another theatre, Sans Souci, on the corner of Leicester Street and Leicester Square, but it too failed. He began a series of lectures on music at Leicester Place, and published two books on musical instruction, but without formal training he was not highly regarded as a musician, and these were not successful. 

Charles Dibdin is best known for his nautical songs. This is in spite of the fact that he was only at sea for one brief voyage and did not appear to have extended contact with seafaring people.   He idealized sailors and wrote of them as noble heroes with faithful sweethearts and wives, who often died bravely in the cause of their country. They are sentiments that now seem overly romanticized, but that were extraordinarily popular with the public and the men he wrote about.

[Text based on material in the The Contemplator's Biography and other published sources.]



Charles Dibdin 1745 - 1814

2.    Charles Dibdin (1745–1814) engraving after Thomas Phillips RA., 260x370mm.  Published in the Illustrated London News dated 1891.  [Image in the public domain.]

His parents, intending him for the clergy, had sent Dibdin to Winchester School, but his love of music soon diverted his thoughts towards the boards rather than the cloth.  After receiving some instruction from the organist of Winchester Cathedral, where he was a chorister between 1756 and 1759, he went to London at the age of fifteen. Here he was employed in a music warehouse in Cheapside, but soon abandoned this to become a singing actor at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

On 21 May 1762 his first work, an operetta in two Acts, written at the age of 16, The Shepherd's Artifice, with his own words and music, was produced at this theatre.  He appeared successfully in the role of Ralph in The Maid of the Mill, for which he wrote the music.  Other associations with Isaac Bickerstaffe included words and music for such songs in Love in the City and Love in a Village.

Other works followed, his reputation being firmly established by the music to the play of The Padlock, produced at Drury Lane under Garrick's management in 1768, the composer himself taking the part of Mungo with conspicuous success. He continued for some years to be connected with Drury Lane, both as composer and as actor, and produced during this period two of his best known works, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775).  In The Comic Mirror he ridiculed prominent contemporary figures through the medium of a puppet show.

A quarrel with Garrick led to the termination of his engagement at Drury Lane.

Selected works

1767: Love in the City (Bickerstaffe)
1768: Lionel and Clarissa (Bickerstaffe)
1768: The Padlock (Bickerstaffe)
1770: The Recruiting Serjeant (Bickerstaffe)
1774: The Waterman (Dibdin)
1775: The Quaker

[Text based on material in the The Contemplator's Biography and other published sources.]


Dibdin Anecdotes

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