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Charles Dibdin was born in March 1745, the son of a parish clerk in Southampton. He seems to have been self-taught as a composer and began his career in his teens as a singer in the chorus at Covent Garden. He first attracted public attention as the farmer's son in Samuel Arnold's The Maid of the Mill, which he doubtless played with a broad Hampshire accent, and he achieved instant fame as Mungo, the black servant in his opera The Padlock, produced at Drury Lane in 1768. Dibdin's career reached its peak in the years around 1770. He was much in demand as a singer and librettist, and wrote a string of successful comic operas for Drury Lane and for fringe venues such as Ranelagh Gardens, many to texts by the talented Irish dramatist Isaac Bickerstaffe. But Bickerstaffe fled to France in the spring of 1773 after being implicated in a homosexual scandal, and Dibdin, increasingly beset by financial and matrimonial troubles, began to quarrel with his potential employers in the London theatres. Things came to a head in 1776 when he too fled to France to escape imprisonment for debt. His later career is a sad catalogue of recurring debt and failed ventures, though he achieved a measure of security and affluence in the 1790s through his one-man 'Table Entertainments' given in his tiny 'Sans-Souci' Theatre off the Strand. He died in poverty and obscurity in 1814, though his illegitimate sons Charles Isaac Mungo and Thomas John had successful careers in the theatre, and descendants of his are still active in English literary life.
Charles Dibdin had formidable gifts in many artistic fields. In addition to his activities as a composer, singer, librettist and musical director, he was also a publisher, a novelist, a travel writer, an autobiographer, a historian, and a painter. Yet he often spread his talents too thinly, especially in later life, and his literary works in particular tend to be marred by extreme haste. As a composer Dibdin was also capable of poor, hasty work, and he never had much interest in setting serious words or writing for instruments. Yet at his best he was unsurpassed in matching comic situations to vividly appropriate music which is often forward-looking and unconventional in melody, harmony and phrase-structure. And he was the first English composer to grasp the full implications of the galant style, with its matching of simple directional harmonies to charming melodies, often of a folk-like cast. Dibdin also seems to have written effectively for the orchestra, though it is unfortunate that all of his best works survive only in vocal score. The late Roger Fiske wrote highly effective orchestral versions of The Ephesian Matron and The Brickdust Man for Opera Da Camera in the 1960s, and I have largely used them for this recording, though I have modified them a little to make them conform more to English practice of the 1770s, and to bring the parts within the typical ranges of eighteenth-century instruments; the orchestral version of The Grenadier is my own.
The Ephesian Matron was first performed at a 'Jubilee Ridotto' at Ranelagh Gardens on 12 May 1769; in the London Chronicle the next day it was reported that the audience was 'exceedingly numerous and brilliant', that there were 'music and illuminations on the canal, the temple and other parts of the garden', and that 'about nine o'clock a new musical entertainment in the manner of the Italian comic serenata was performed'. Bickerstaffe mainly had Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona in mind, which was often performed in London in Italian and English from the 1750s; he wrote in the printed text that the managers at Ranelagh thought 'something in the same way would be an improvement upon the detached song and ballads, usually sung in their orchestra'. Another reason for imitating La Serva Padrona was that fringe theatres were prevented by law at the time from putting on spoken plays, so they had to use works with recitative. It is not clear to what extent The Ephesian Matron was acted out in its first performance; Bickerstaffe admitted that it had 'at a short warning, been in great haste put together'. Nevertheless, it was quite successful: it was transferred to the Haymarket Theatre, was performed about thirty times at the time, and was revived several times in the 1920s and 30s.
The work is, most unusually for the eighteenth century, a black comedy, set throughout in a tomb. It is based on an episode from The Satiricon by Petronius, which Bickerstaffe might have encountered in the Jacobean play The Widow's Tears by George Chapman, in an unpublished contemporary play by Charles Johnson, in many popular chapbooks, or in a well-known essay by Steele in The Spectator; Bickerstaffe clearly knew the latter, for he borrowed from it the motif of the traveller, the lion and the signpost for his vaudeville. The Ephesian Matron has just become a widow and, despite the pleadings of her father and maid, is determined to remain with the body until death. She expresses her grief in a delicious parody of the mad arias of contemporary opera seria. The maid tries without success to cheer her up in a patter song, but soon after a handsome Roman centurion arrives who has been guarding the bodies of executed criminals nearby. He has considerably more success but returns to his post, only to find that a body has been stolen. He returns distraught, but the Matron has an inspiration: her husband's body will replace the missing one. A wedding is the inevitable outcome, after the period of mourning has been swiftly reduced in the last recitative from seven years to one day. In the vaudeville the four singers step out of character to apologise to women for the way they are traditionally represented as false, vain and changeable.
The Brickdust Man and The Grenadier belong to a group of short 'musical dialogues' written by Dibdin in the 1770s for Sadler's Wells, then a summer resort outside London. Spoken plays were also forbidden at Sadler's Wells which specialised at the time in popular variety shows with dancing, conjuring, songs and aquatic displays designed to appeal to a middle-class audience. So they have recitative rather than dialogue, and in them the world of the commedia dell'arte is transformed into contemporary London. The scene of The Brickdust Man is a street in the West End of London, then a fashionable residential area. There are references to St Giles's Church (near the present Tottenham Court Road tube station) and Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street). It concerns John, a street trader who sells powdered brick (used as a scourer, for making rouge, and for several other purposes) and Molly, a milkmaid. They believe each other to have been unfaithful, and after Molly has sung a rage aria (another parody of the opera seria type), they are reconciled in a gentle and melodious duet. The Grenadier is set below stairs. Ralph suspects, with good reason, that Jenny is being unfaithful to him. She sends him on a fool's errand, and when he is out of the way his soldier-rival appears. Ralph returns and catches them together but soon relinquishes his claim to the girl when the grenadier threatens him with his sword.
Peter Holman © 1992
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