18th Century Dramatists and Composers

Isaac Bickerstaff, 1733 - 1812

Bickerstaff had first arrived in London in 1755 and worked as a playwright. His years growing up in Dublin, a cultural hub at the time, had greatly influenced his views on writing and the arts.

Bickerstaff developed a view that the English language was totally unsuited for operas, however skilled the composer, and that Italian was the natural language. Later in life, he was to challenge this view.

In London he initially struggled and his first work Leucothoé, a dramatic poem, was a failure. While critically well received by two reviewers it had not been set to music or performed and was widely ignored.

Bickerstaff also hurt his chances of success by publicly criticising David Garrick, the leading actor-manager of the era, for "barbarity" in his recent attempts to set Shakespeare plays to music. These setbacks forced him to return to military service.

In 1760, while still serving in the marine corps, Bickerstaff collaborated with Thomas Arne, the leading British composer, on a light opera Thomas and Sally which was an enormous success. It is possible that Bickerstaff simply wrote the play and approached Arne with it or sent it to the Covent Garden Theatre where he was working.  It had its opening night at Covent Garden on 28 November 1760. The play was performed repeatedly in London and soon spread around Britain and across the British Empire. It was also performed in Dublin, Philadelphia and Kingston, Jamaica. 

Bickerstaff and Arne subsequently worked together on Judith, an oratorio first performed at Drury Lane in February 1760.  He went on to produce many successful comedies based on Marivaux and other French playwrights and opera librettos.

In 1762 he and Arne wrote Love in a Village considered the first English comic opera.  His The Maide of the Mill (1765), with music by Samuel Arnold and others, was also very successful. Bickerstaff also wrote bowdlerised versions of plays by William Wycherley and Pedro Calderon de la Barca.

In 1772, Bickerstaff fled to France, suspected of homosexuality.   Little is known of him after this date.

(Isaac Bickerstaff Esq was a pseudonym used by Jonathan Swift as part of a hoax to predict the death of then famous Almanac–maker, astrologer, and quack John Partridge.)

Links with Ayrshire:

There is no evidence of Bickerstaff having direct links with Ayrshire although many of his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.


Title page of the published version of the Recruiting Sergeant by Isaac Bickerstaff. Whittingham and Arliss, London, 1816 magnify     [Image in the public domain.]

Thomas Augustine Arne 1710 – 1778

Thomas Augustine Arne was born in March, 1710, in London.   According to tradition, Arne was the son of an upholsterer in Covent Garden; sent to Eton, then apprenticed to an attorney, he soon found his way into the musical profession. Arne was a self-taught violinist and keyboard player although he had a few lessons from Michael Festing, later leader of the Italian Opera orchestra.  It was at the Opera (which he attended in a footman’s livery to obtain free admission) that his musical taste was largely formed.

Arne taught both his sister, later famous as the actress Mrs. Cibber, and his young brother to sing, and they appeared in his first stage work, Rosamond (1733). This opera, which included the bravura air 'Rise, Glory, Rise', was based on Joseph Addison’s libretto of 1707 and set 'after the Italian manner.'

As a Roman Catholic, Arne was barred from writing for the court or the Anglican church; and he composed only a handful of orchestral and instrumental works. But he made up for this with a prolific career in the London theatre, setting almost exclusively English words, as opposed to the Italian of Handel’s international companies. He was house composer at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1734 to 1750, with an interlude of two seasons in Dublin, and after that house composer at Covent Garden.

Arne’s theatrical output, much of it now lost, covered a wide range, from songs for plays, by way of comic operas in various genres, to full-length serious operas – notably Artaxerxes, which was first performed in 1762. He also wrote songs for the London pleasure gardens and in 1761 an oratorio, Judith. But he is chiefly remembered today for some of his tuneful songs for Shakespeare plays, and of course for ‘Rule, Britannia!’ from the 1740 patriotic masque Alfred.

In the final decade of his life, Arne set Garrick’s ode for the Stratford Shakespeare jubilee of 1769.  He died in 1778 and was buried at St Paul's, Covent Garden, London.  A blue plaque, unveiled in 1988, commemorates Arne at 31 King Street in Covent Garden.

[Text based on Encyclopedia Britannica and biographical information published by the BBC.]

Links with Ayrshire:

There is no evidence of Arne having direct links with Ayrshire although some of his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.


Portrait of Thomas Augustine Arne (1710 – 1778), 1778. Mezzotint by Robert Dunkarton (1744–1811) after William Humphrey.  Original in the National Portrait Gallery, London. .  magnify   [Image in the public domain.]

Thomas John Dibdin 1771 - 1841

Born in 1771, Thomas John Dibdin was the illegitimate son of Charles Dibdin, a song-writer and theatre manager, and of Mrs Davenet, an actress whose real name was Harriet Pitt (a dancer at Covent Garden from Jan 1762-1768, and who changed her stage name on marriage from 'Miss Pitt' to 'Mrs. Davenet' to distinguish herself from her still working mother.)

Thomas rejected a musical education at Saint Paul's Cathedral after a year. A happy period at a preparatory school at Wandsworth was followed by the harsh regime of a northern school in the county of Durham, where he received a classical education, kept a toy theatre, and began to attend plays.  Dibdin was apprenticed to his maternal uncle, a London upholsterer, and later to William Rawlins, later sheriff of London but after a few years of service he ran away to join a company of country players.  From 1789 to 1795 he played many roles; he worked as a scene painter at Liverpool in 1791; and during this period he composed more than 1,000 songs.

His first work as a dramatist was Something New, followed by The Mad Guardian in 1795. He returned to London in 1795, having married two years before; and in the winter of 1798-99 The Jew and the Doctor was produced at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Dibdin was prompter and pantomime writer at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane until 1816, when he took over the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth. This venture proved disastrous, and he became bankrupt. After this, he was manager of the Haymarket Theatre, but without his old success, and his last years were passed in comparative poverty. He died in 1841

[Text based on material published in the Dictionary of National Biography 15 and Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) and online material from Project Muse.]

Links with Ayrshire:

There is no evidence of Dibdin having direct links with Ayrshire although some of his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.  It is known that Dibdin was in Edinburgh, Inverness (where he painted sccenery for a new theatre managed by Jones), Banff and Aberdeen.


Thomas John Dibdin (1771-1841), Actor and dramatist; illegitimate son of Charles Dibdin.   Copper engraving with stipple by Henry Meyer, after Samuel Drummond.  130 x 210 mm.   magnify   [Image in the public domain.]

Charles Dibdin 1745 - 1814

Charles Dibdin was born in Southampton in 1745, the eighteenth son of a poor silvermaker.

Aat the age of nine he entered Winchester College where his talent for music was first noticed by organist who gave him rudimentary instruction (the only instruction Dibdin ever received.)   Dibdin sang at the Cathedral, at concerts during races and became the principal performer in a weekly amateur concert. Rather than continuing studies for a career in the church, Dibdin determined to make a career in music.

Dindin applied for the position of organist at Waltham in Hampshire, but was rejected.  When his brother Tom (who was 29 years older) returned from sea, they moved to London. Tom found him a job tuning harpsichords for a music seller in Cheapside.  He composed songs published by Thompson, of St. Paul's Church-yard, who paid him three guineas for six ballads.  When introduced to the manager of Covent Garden, Dibdin was hired as a chorus-singer. 

In 1762, at the age of seventeen, Dibdin composed The Shepherd's Artifice for the theatre. For a time he both composed and performed in ballad operas. He had great success as a performer, but he stopped performing in order to devote himself to composition, thereafter singing only in public performances of his own music.

Charles Dibdin's life was marked by scandal. During his first marriage he had a liaison with Mrs. Davenet, a chorus singer at Covent Garden. He had children by her, including dramatists Thomas and Charles, both of whom eventually took their father's name. Dibdin abandoned Mrs. Davenet, leaving her in poverty.

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.

Dibdin left Covent Garden and became one of several parties to build the Circus Theatre (later the Surrey Theatre) where he was sole manager for life, paid one fourth of the profits. However, personal conflicts forced Dibdin to withdraw from the Surrey in 1785. Dibdin opened another theatre, Sans Souci, 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.

In 1803 the Government voted Dibdin an annual pension (withdrawn in 1808) of £200 pounds.  At the age of sixty he retired to Cranford.  Later, after further tours, he settled in Camden Town.  In 1813 he had a stroke, and died in July the following year.

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

Links with Ayrshire:

There is no evidence of Dibdin having direct links with Ayrshire although many of his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.  However, it is known that he toured extensively in Scotland and that he islikely to have appeared in Edinburgh and Glasgow.


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

Henry Rowley Bishop 1786 - 1855

Sir Henry Rowley Bishop was born in November 1786, in London, where his father was a watchmaker and haberdasher.

At the age of 13, Bishop left full-time education and worked as a music publisher with his cousin. After training as a jockey at Newmarket, he took some lessons in harmony from Francisco Bianchi in London. In 1804 he wrote the music to a piece called 'Angelina', which was performed at Margate.

Bishop's 'operas' were written in a style and format that satisfied the audiences of his day. They have more in common with the earlier, native English ballad opera genre, or with modern musicals, than the classical opera of continental Europe. His first opera, The Circassian's Bride (1809), had one performance at Drury Lane — then the theatre burned down and the score was lost.

In the years between 1816 and 1828, Bishop composed the music for a series of Shakespearean operas staged by Frederic Reynolds. But these, and the numerous works, operas, burlettas, cantatas and, incidental music which he wrote are mostly forgotten.

His most successful pieces were The Virgin of the Sun (1812), The Miller and his Men (1813), Guy Mannering (1816), and Clari, or the Maid of Milan. The latter's libretto and lyrics were written by the American John Howard Payne, whose poem and song Home! Sweet Home! (1823) became wildly popular.  In 1852 Bishop 'relaunched' the song as a parlour ballad.

Bishop worked for all the major theatres of London in his era — including the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Vauxhall Gardens and the Haymarket Theatre, and was also Professor of Music at Oxford University.  In 1841 he was appointed to the Reid Chair of Music in the University of Edinburgh, but he resigned the office in 1843.

Sir Henry Bishop died in poverty in London, in April 1855, although he had a substantial income during his lifetime. He is buried in East Finchley Cemetery.

[This text is based on material in The Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) (Eleventh ed.), now in the public domain, and other sources available on line.]

Links with Ayrshire:

There is no evidence of Bishop having direct links with Ayrshire although his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.  Late in life he had an association with Edinburgh University as the Reid Professor of Music.


Sir Henry Rowley Bishop 1786 - 1855, 1813, attributed to Isaac Pocock 1782-1835, oil on canvas, 762 mm x 635 mm. Collection of National Portrait Gallery, London. Magnify   [Image in the public domain.]

Sir George Thomas Smart (1776–1867)

George Thomas Smart was born in London in May 1776, son of George Smart, a music-seller, and his wife Ann Embrey.   A chorister at the Chapel Royal, St. James's, he learnt music with Ayrton, Dupuis. J. B. Cramer, and Arnold. He sang at the first Handel commemoration festival at Westminster Abbey, in 1784, and conducted the last there in 1834.  At fifteen he left the choir and became organist to St. James's Chapel, Hampstead Road; he often played the violin in Salomon's band, and taught singing.

In 1811 Smart visited Dublin to conduct a series of concerts, and was knighted by the Duke of Richmond, lord lieutenant of Ireland. In 1813 he became an original member of the Philharmonic Society, for which he often conducted. For thirteen years (1813–25) he was conductor of the city concerts and the Lent oratorios, at which in 1814 he produced for the first time in England Beethoven's ‘Mount of Olives’ in his own arrangement.  In 1822 Smart travelled to Vienna to consult Beethoven as to the correct tempi of the movements of his symphonies.

In 1836 Smart conducted Mendelssohn's ‘St. Paul’, for the first time in England, at Liverpool. Two years later he became composer to the Chapel Royal, and conducted the music at the funeral of George IV, and at the coronations of William IV and Queen Victoria.  

Sir George Smart had a wide knowledge of the Handelian traditions, obtained from singers who had appeared under Handel.  He was a fine conductor, and his abundant notes to the Norwich festival programmes (now in the British Museum) attest his scrupulous care.  He wrote some church music and glees, and edited Gibbons's first set of madrigals, and Handel's Dettingen ‘Te Deum’ for the Musical Antiquarian Society.

Smart married Frances Margaret Hope, daughter of the Rev. C. S. Hope of Derby, in February 1832, and had one daughter.  Much sought after as a teacher of singing, he was grand organist of the ‘Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.’

Smart died at Bedford Square in February 1867, and was buried at Kensal Green.

[Text based on material by Robin Humphrey Legge in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52 and other published sources.

Links with Ayrshire:
There is no evidence of Smart having direct links with Ayrshire although some of his works were performed in Ayrshire theatres.


Sir George Thomas Smart (1776–1867) by John Cawse 1779–1862.  Oil on canvas, 762 x 635 mm   Original in The Foundling Museum.  magnify  [Image in the public domain.]

Bickerstaff Anathematised

'Of this man little is known, and that little, unhappily, is not good.

Pamela: source for A Maid of the Mill)

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded
was a novel by Samuel Richardson, first published in 1740.

Preface to Maid from the Mill

There is scarce a language in Europe, in which there is not a play taken from our romance of Pamela.

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