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Life of Johann Nepomuk Offdewallensis

Bohemian percussionist and composer
(1696‑1787)

Johann Nepomuk Sigismund Offdewallensis was born in Hradny Piwo in what is now Czechia, in 1696. His father was a barber and his mother was the illegitimate daughter of the village priest. Of his early life, little is known except that as a child he was considered a bully; it is significant, however, that the few anecdotes that have come down to us of his pugnacious temperament also bear witness to his delicate musical sensitivity: when he knocked his playmates' heads together or caused them to scream, little Johann could be seen listening carefully to the sounds produced, and would later attempt to duplicate them with barnyard fowl in the family kitchen — foreshadowing his future interests and experimentation.

For the purposes of this biographical sketch, Offdewallensis led a long and varied life, running away from home at the age of fourteen and spending his adolescence as an itinerant hurdy-gurdy player thruout Bohemia and Carinthia. In the process, he acquired a large repertoire which he eventually adapted in his mature works.

In 1716, at the age of 20, he was hired as city watchman and drummer in Poznan, a post which he held for 8 years. During that time, he took lessons from the great triangle-player, Adolf von Budweiser, with whose wife Urwulf he finally eloped to neighboring Courland in 1724.

For a time history loses track of him, until his name reappears in municipal court proceedings in Prague in 1734, cited for bigamy, Urwulf having apparently died of exhaustion in the interim. Released from prison on the intervention of Maximilian, into whose service he passed as principal sackbut player, he rapidly grew bored with life at the imperial court, and left for Naples in 1739, where, under the name of Giovanni de Muro, he taught cymbals and gong at the celebrated Conservatory for Boys and received his first great acclaim as a composer.

Implicated, it is believed unjustly, in the poisoning of an opera singer in 1747, he was forced to leave Naples with nine of his children and, after an unsuccessful stint as Birdmeister to the Prince-Bishop of Oberperroketenheim near Vienna — some say that Mozart, forty-four years later, took him as the model for Papageno in the Magic Flute — he found his way to Benevento in southern Italy, where he spent the last thirty-seven years of his life as court composer and cook to Duke Gianmauro III.

When the latter died, his son and successor fired the entire musical staff, which so discouraged the composer that two months later he too died, carried away by venereal disease at the age of 91. His gambling habits earned him the unmarked grave of a pauper: thus it is ironic that while of his own bones there remains no trace, in the town museum of Skrc-nad-Drzvá in his native Bohemia there can still be seen a set of sheep's tibias once used by Offdewallensis as hammers for his favorite instrument, a water-dulcimer built by his grandfather.

His many works include over 600 trio sonatas, 14 masses, and some 30 suites for brass band and percussion meant to be performed as Tafelmusik for his last patron, who was already hard of hearing when he engaged Johann Nepomuk and somewhat understandably became stone deaf shortly thereafter. Of all this, only the well-known Coronation Anthem (curiously, he originally composed it as the Dance of Cannibals and Tax Collectors in an unfinished opera, "The Rape of Ganymede") and a few pieces of church music can still be heard, most of his work having been lost or fallen into oblivion.

Offdewallensis' genius is once again being recognized, and Czech musical circles have even credited him with being a forerunner of Bela Bartók, a claim principally based on his great treatise on percussion instruments, "De modo auscultorum musicae surdos faciendorum, vel in campo vel in ipso domicilio", published in Venice in 1783. The publication of his extant works was started in 1959 by the Czechoslovak People's Socialist Academy of Music, and had spurred a moderate revival of interest in his music, but European Union regulations have now required the Czech government to call an end to the project: it is this writer's hope that private funding may be found to bring the edition to completion.

Offdewallensis' last known widow died in Monaco in 1902.


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Page updated: 8 Oct 13