Charles Dibdin – Christmas Gambols

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Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) has a strong claim to be Britain’s first pop star. He became famous as a performer in the 1760s, then went on to both write and compose the two most enduringly successful English operas of the 1770s, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775), both still being revived a century later. These works reveal his extraordinary ability to write a catchy song, but Dibdin became frustrated with having to work in the existing London theatres, where managers like David Garrick held absolute sway. In 1787 he made the bold and seminal decision to take his music directly to the public.

Among his many claims to fame, Dibdin was the first musician in Britain to publicly perform on a piano. From 1787, this new instrument became an integral part of his revolutionary one-man shows, or ‘Table Entertainments’ as he liked to call them. He stood at the piano, speaking and singing to his audience in an atmosphere of cultivated intimacy. He published his songs himself and sold them to his fans. Many of them became immensely successful: ‘Tom Bowling’, of course, is still well known today.

By 1791 Dibdin’s Table Entertainments were proving so popular that he felt emboldened to open his own London theatre. His first Sans Souci theatre opened on the Strand in 1791; in 1796, Dibdin moved to a second Sans Souci theatre in Leicester Place, off Leicester Square, where he continued performing until 1805. Contemporary illustrations and descriptions reveal these theatres to have been the epitome of Georgian elegance – a striking contrast to the robustly popular nature of the Table Entertainments themselves, which often seem closer to the world of James Gillray than that of Jane Austen. But Dibdin’s songs cover a very wide range, from heartbreakingly sentimental numbers like ‘Tom Bowling’ to foot-stomping celebrations of the pleasures of drink and stirring patriotic songs. In fact, he appears to have been Austen’s favourite composer.

During the 1790s and early 1800s – the age of Nelson, Blake, Wordsworth, Turner, Gillray, Siddons and Kemble – Dibdin’s Table Entertainments were a staple, much-loved part of London’s richly varied entertainment scene. But they depended so much on his own extraordinary range of talents that no one attempted to revive them after his retirement, even though he was certainly a potent influence on later generations of solo performers and singer-songwriters. It is only now, thanks to the very enterprising efforts of Retrospect Opera, that we can get a vivid glimpse of what it was like to visit the Sans Souci theatre in those remarkable years.

Retrospect have recorded a shortened version of Dibdin’s first ever Table Entertainment, originally billed as Readings and Music (1787), and a full version of Christmas Gambols of 1795, the last new work to be brought out in the Strand theatre. Simon Butteriss, the immensely gifted comic baritone, chiefly known for his Gilbert and Sullivan roles, effectively becomes Dibdin here. It is certainly hard to imagine Dibdin himself sounding any better! Butteriss has the same sort of singing voice as Dibdin and, seemingly effortlessly, recreates the extraordinary range of voices and tones necessary to bring these works to life. He is ably supported by Stephen Higgins, playing a replica eighteenth-century fortepiano such as Dibdin himself used.

The main work recorded, Christmas Gambols, is a celebration of what, in 1795, was considered a ‘traditional’ English Christmas: a time of games, festivity, food, music, and hospitality. There is, notably, no mention of the religious significance of the holiday. This appears to be the fullest picture of an eighteenth-century Christmas to be found anywhere, and gives Dibdin’s work great cultural and anthropological interest in addition to its beguiling musical qualities.

Retrospect’s CD, which is beautifully presented with a booklet containing full texts of the Table Entertainments and three informative essays, would make a superb Christmas gift for anyone interested in Christmas past. But it is also something that anyone interested in the history of English song, or London’s theatrical history, or the evolution of modern forms of entertainment, will want to own. It offers a hugely entertaining 75 minutes of patter and songs, perhaps best enjoyed with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie or two. The CD can be bought through the Retrospect website (http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/), or from Foyles or Amazon.