We recorded G. Herbert Rodwell’s Jack Sheppard at the Richard Burnett Heritage Collection, Royal Tunbridge Wells, in January 2023, using their 1866 Erard grand piano to add period flavour. This was our first attempt at reviving a melodrama—a sensational musical play, punctuated with songs and dramatic bursts of instrumental music—and, we believe, the first ever professional recording of a nineteenth-century melodrama. This was a sensationally popular genre of entertainment in Rodwell’s day: one that competed with, emulated and influenced opera, often being presented in the same theatres. Composers of English opera like Rodwell often composed scores for melodramas too; the line between these two protean varieties of musical theatre was fascinatingly porous.
Jack Sheppard includes some of the greatest musical hits of the early Victorian period, and we judged it particularly suited to the limitations of an audio recording, for it features many intense scenes between just two speakers, vividly brought to life by our multitalented cast. We thus invite you to experience the excitement, energy, sentiment and memorable melodies of Victorian melodrama at its compelling best!
George Herbert Buonaparte Rodwell, generally known as G. Herbert Rodwell, was born in London on 15 November 1800; he ‘began life under very favourable auspices’, according to his obituary in The Times. From an early age, he revealed a powerful attraction to the stage as both an aspirant writer and composer. He made his mark first as a dramatist, his popular spoken farce Where Shall I Dine? appearing as early as 1819. In the following years, however, he concentrated on music and took private lessons with Henry Bishop (1786–1855), Britain’s leading composer for the theatre in the 1810s and ’20s. Rodwell’s later textbook, The First Rudiments of Harmony (1830), was dedicated to Bishop in the most flattering terms: ‘to you alone I owe all the musical knowledge I possess. … it will always be my proudest recollection to think that I have been the pupil of our English Mozart.’
Rodwell’s compositional debut came with the ‘Dramatic Romance’ Waverley, or Sixty Years Since—from Walter Scott—brought out at the Adelphi Theatre in 1824. The text was by Edward Fitzball (1792–1873), already well on his way to becoming one of Britain’s most successful writers for the popular stage (and later the librettist for Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes). The collaboration was a happy one, Fitzball later writing that he had been ‘extremely fortunate in having a man of genius to compose the Music, who knew how to embody the ideas of the Author with his own superior skill’. Rodwell, according to Fitzball, ‘ever a most joyous companion, was then “a gay young fellow, full of mirth, and full of glee”’ (the quotation, appropriately, is from a popular song). Rodwell and Fitzball continued to work together, their greatest success coming with the melodrama The Flying Dutchman, or The Phantom Ship (1826), performed on both sides of the Atlantic for decades and the most popular theatrical version of the story later treated by Wagner. The main period of Rodwell’s career as a composer for the theatre extends from Waverley to Jack Sheppard of 1839. His professional life in these years was dominated by the Adelphi, where he served as director of music from 1827 to 1835, and again from 1838 to 1843. Between these stints, he was director of music at Covent Garden, and also, from 1834, taught music to the future Queen Victoria. In 1840 Rodwell had a major health crisis, and in the remainder of his life chiefly turned to the more sedentary occupation of writing serialised novels, his very competent efforts at which reveal his deep familiarity with the popular novels of the day. He died in London on 22 January 1852.
As a composer, Rodwell felt plenty of creative frustration, as his Letter to the Musicians of Great Britain (1833) makes abundantly clear. It is a shrill statement of grievance, and central to Rodwell’s complaint is the fact that British composers very seldom had the chance to compose ‘grand operas’, which he regarded as ‘the very top of the musical tree’. The closest Rodwell came to composing such a work was his ‘Grand National Opera’ The Lord of the Isles (after Scott), with a libretto by Fitzball, brought out by the Surrey Theatre in 1834, then staged at Covent Garden the following year. His many other stage works are very diverse in character, but they always feature the quality he was most renowned for: memorable melodies. His ‘mine of melody’ was still fondly remembered in the Era in 1874, but by the end of the century he was forgotten, like most British stage composers of his time.
G. Herbert Rodwell | Jack Sheppard
Charli Baptie | Jack Sheppard
Peter Benedict | Owen Wood, Sir Rowland Trenchard, Davies, Hogarth
Simon Butteriss | Narrator, Blueskin, Jonathan Wild, Mrs Wood, Mendez, John Gay
Daniel Huttlestone | Thames Darrell, Quilt, Slimkid
Emily Vine | Winny
Stephen Higgins | piano (an 1866 Erard grand piano)
1 | Prelude – In the year of our Lord 1715 …
2 | Song: Claude Duval
3 | Jack’s master, the carpenter …
4 | Song: The Carpenter’s Daughter
5 | Come, come, be off Jack.
6 | Song: The Jolly Nose
7 | Bravo! Bravo! Beautiful!
8 | At St Giles’s Round-house …
9 | Nine years later, and since …
10 | Song: Nix My Dolly
11 | The dance is suddenly interrupted …
12 | Wood the carpenter retired …
13 | Song: Return, O My Love
14 | Wood and Winny are astonished …
15 | An hour later, a dishevelled Wild arrives …
16 | Some days later, Jack is weeping …
17 | Song: Farewell My Rory Tories
18 | Slimkid comes running in.
19 | The visitors leave and the cell door is locked …
20 | Song: St Giles’s Bowl
21 | Having freed himself, Jack takes the blanket …
22 | Postlude
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