The birthdate of H. H.-J. C. Ach

Hieronymus Hans-Joachim Christian Ach was born on December 20, 1755, in the Austrian lakeside town of Grossin-Diessensee, to Martha (née Flotow) and Stefan-Friedhelm Ach, one of a long line of cobblers and principal crumhorn in the court orchestra at the local Cardinal-Archbishop’s palace. In February 1762, Stefan-Friedhelm was struck down by scrofula while burnishing his awls in preparation for Fassingschwank. Forced to take in washing, Martha was unable to support the young Hieronymus and apprenticed him to the bellows-keeper of the magnificent new Silbermann instrument at St Peter, Paul & Mary’s Cathedral in nearby Dittersdorf.

Hieronymus’ alacrity at pumping the organ brought him, at the age of 12, to the attention of fashionable castrato Michaël Jachssohn, then appearing in Händel’s Ronaldo at the Dittersdorfer Staatsoper under the patronage of the Contessa Rompi-Coglioni, and soon the pair, who had a touching relationship, were making court appearances together. It was at the Dittersdorf court that Hieronymus began his formal musical studies with Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who though Vienna-born retained close links with his ancestral home, and there also that he lost his left eye in a double-bass bowing accident.

The composer’s talents were not limited to the double-bass but covered a wide range of instruments, including (inspired by a Purcell song and encouraged by Jachssohn) the silent flute, the raucous Merkelhorn, the valveless strumpet and the famous B-less fortepiano that Ach had custom-built by prestigious Erlin-based firm Oesendorfer & Echstein. This is now on display in the Alan Erg memorial hall of the seldom-visited musical instruments department at the Kuntshistorischesmuseum in Vienna (curator H. Heiligenstadt).

It was for the B-less instrument that Ach composed his keyboard works, remarkable in that they scrupulously avoid the note B. The only known recording of these is a single boxed set owned by Mr K. K. Ruddytedde in Shanghai. They eventually led to his discovery of the eleven-note row and an ingenious series of occasional compositions for the Cardinal-Archbishop’s breakfast, Ach’s now-celebrated Cereal Music, which at their premiere in 1794 led to accusations of Ach's being inverted, retrograde, or both.

Of his early works, the best-known today is the Smiley Suite, made famous by Ms Martha’s best-selling analysis of the musical forms used in Ach’s considerable opus, published by Schmidt & Wollensky of Las Vegas, specialists in rare, medium and well-done books, and not yet available on Internet.

Ach’s many Lieder, settings of Chinese drinking songs by well-known Chinese drinker Springrite, include Audacious Grossness, The Confused Hero, Disregard Abandon, The Voluntary Introvert, Fascinating Adversity, and Wild Utterance, the latter dedicated to soprano Renata Flehming after her ill-advised Paris performance of Il Pirata.

Among his large-scale mature works, we find the symphonic poem Professor Stein's Progress (incomplete), the utopian fantasy The Mellowing of Mel, and above all his mysterious 37-location piece Wo? (Where?), only recently unearthed by Dr Herman (Protestant University of Dutch Sierra): 37 pieces for different ensembles, played synchronously and intended to result, according to Dr Herman, “in some diaphanous music of the spheres – or in this case, of the Tubes.”

But Ach was dogged by a debilitating – some might say crippling – sense of inferiority to his revered teacher, Dittersdorf, and his projected magnum opus, an oratorio in two parts – La Terre and L’Air – meant, says Dr Herman, to be “the great antithesis to Debussy’s piece,” was unfinished at the time of his premature death from apoplexy, brought on by hearing an Andrea Bocelli collection of Christmas Favourites, in 1804.

His early demise may explain his fall into neglect in the intervening years. Yet his music treads a fine line between the very real images suggested by his more abstract pages, and the abstract ones brought to mind by his programme works, and, thanks most likely to its sheer pastoral beauty, is set to undergo something of a revival in 2004. New Yorkers in particular may look forward to next summer's Absolutely Ach Festival in New York, the first to be sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Over a three week period performances will be given by soloists, chamber groups and full orchestras on thirty-seven subway station platforms. In a recent New York Times article on this extraordinary extravaganza Bernard Holland opined that "Bayreuth and Salzburg next summer will play second fiddle to Gotham's tribute to Ach." The festival will culminate in a performance of the Bad Hairday Music from Ach's searingly transcendental opera Farcical (no applause please).

Source: Breitkopf & Hartel’s Apocrypha. The authors would like to thank K. K. Ruddytedde, Professor Ralph M. Stein, Springrite, Dr Herman, Ms Martha and a cast of thousands for their valuable contributions to this article.

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