Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) is a gigantic figure in the history of English song, probably the most important composer of English comic operas in the late 1700s, and, in addition, he was the most versatile entertainer of his age.
Dibdin sprang to fame at the age of nineteen, playing the part of Ralph in Samuel Arnold’s opera, The Maid of the Mill (1765). Three years later he established his reputation as a composer with The Padlock (1768), an opera in which he stole the show himself, playing the black servant, Mungo. James Boaden recalled: ‘Dibdin, by his music, and still more by his acting in a comic opera, called the Padlock, produced that degree of sensation in the public which is called a rage.’ His fame secured, in the 1770s Dibdin began writing his own librettos, producing both words and music for the two most enduringly successful operas of the decade, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775), both of them still being revived a century later. Despite all his success in the London theatres, though, Dibdin was touchy and quarrelsome, finding it increasingly hard to work in co-operative environments. Recognising this, in 1787 he staged the first of his one-man musical shows, or ‘Table Entertainments’ as he called them, Readings and Music. Back in 1767, Dibdin had been the first musician in Britain to perform on a piano in public. His interest in the instrument had continued, and in his Table Entertainments he stood, or sat, at a piano, telling dramatized stories and playing and singing songs. This format allowed him to display all his talents and became Dibdin’s principal means of engaging with his public. He opened his own little London theatre, called Sans Souci, in 1791, and continued to perform until 1809. During these decades, Dibdin wrote hundreds of songs, most of them introduced in his Table Entertainments, including the most famous of all, ‘Tom Bowling,’ originally part of The Oddities (1789). Dozens of these songs were still regularly sung decades later: no other eighteenth-century composer contributed more to the nineteenth-century English song repertoire.