Andrew Ashe was the son of Samuel Ashe (b.1712) and was born at Lisburn in the north of Ireland. He was educated at Woolwich where, at the early age of nine, he showed a great disposition for music and devoted a portion of his weekly allowance to pay for lessons on the violin which he received from the master of the Royal Artillery band. When he was twelve years old, a lawsuit, which had been pending for many years between a neighbouring nobleman and his grandfather (Nicholas Ashe), was settled to the disadvantage of Nicholas Ashe. As a result, his parents could no longer support him at Woolwich. As he was sobbing at the prospect of having to return to Ireland, he was approached by Count Bentinck, a member of the Duke of Portland’s family and a Colonel in the British army, who arranged with the headmaster and his parents to take the lad under his patronage. He took him to Minorca where his regiment was based.
The Count arranged for him to be instructed on the violin from an eminent Italian master under whom he improved so much that he was soon looked upon as a musical prodigy for his age. He next accompanied his protector on a long tour through Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany and finally settled with him on his estates in Holland. While living in The Hague, young Ashe’s education was directed towards the goal of him becoming a confidential servant on the Count’s estates. However, the boy was too far advanced in music and too devoted to it to permit him to pay the required attention to study for the intended office of land steward.
He had now acquired a pretty general knowledge of various wind instruments having attended the regular practice of his patron’s regimental band. About this time he began to take an interest in the flute, but it was a rather limited instrument and, after considerable application, he relinquished it due to its great imperfections. Shortly after this, Sieur Vanhall arrived at the Hague from London bringing a flute made by Potter and announced a concert in which he was to perform a concerto with six keys. As this was the first of these improved instruments to reach Holland, there was some excitement to see where these keys could be placed on a flute, and no one was so actively curious in this respect as young Ashe. He lost no time in offering his services on the violin and promising the Count’s patronage of the concert which he accordingly obtained for Vanhall. In Vanhall’s hands, these additional keys on the flute were only ornamental as he had not learned how to use them properly. However, when young Ashe tried them and found that they produced all the half notes as full and round as the tones natural to the instrument in its unkeyed state he made up his mind to have this flute at any cost, which he accomplished at a considerable price through the Count’s indulgence.
From about 1774, Andrew Ashe gave up the violin and dedicated his entire attention to his newly acquired purchase. After some months application, the celebrated Wendling, who was the successor to Quartz (the king of Prussia’s master), came to the Hague and Andrew took some lessons from him. On his second visit, Wendling told him his new flute was a bad one, that the long keys on the bottom joint spoiled the instrument, and that the small keys were of no use particularly in quick passages. These observations from the master did not correspond with what Andrew thought of its excellence and induced him to discontinue his lessons as soon as a proper respect for such a distinguished professor would permit. After a few years of incessant application, Andrew became the admiration of Holland chiefly from the uncommon fullness of the tone in those more abstruse keys in music which could not be produced from the other flutes then in general use.
Flushed with the admiration which he was experiencing, Andrew now wanted to launch himself into the world and his patron, Count Bentinck, permitted him to go on a handsome salary as musician to Lord Torrington, who was then on the point of moving from Holland to Brussels. Later, he moved into the household of Lord Dillon who also resided in Brussels. That nobleman was a great patron of the opera and wished his musician to have the position of first flute in the opera orchestra. Since there were, at this period of 1778 and 1779, a great number of English at Brussels who were a material support to the opera, they demanded a public trial of skill between the resident flute of the opera and the young Ashe which accordingly took place at the first rehearsal of the season Although it was admitted that the resident flute, Sieur Vanhall, was by far the most experienced musician and flute player, Ashe gained general approbation and the position by his superiority of tone. In this school of musical improvement, the young flutist remained for a few years in Brussels.
Then, an Irish gentleman by the name of Mr. Whyte, who was a great amateur of music, expressed the intention of making a grand continental tour. As Andrew Ashe was by this time a general linguist in addition to his flute playing, Mr Whyte proposed to take Ashe with him, to which Andrew agreed immediately. After Andrew relinquished all his engagements, letters arrived calling Mr Whyte back to Ireland. As Andrew had been thinking of the land of his birth for a long time, he willingly accepted Mr Whyte’s offer of accompanying him to Dublin. Not long after his arrival, he was engaged for the Rotunda concerts which were then brilliantly supported. Here, he remained for a few years, and the great applause, with which his performance always met, was a stimulus to his further improvement.
His fame reached England and the late Mr Salomon, who had in 1791 brought over the great composer Haydn for his concerts in Hanover Square, was anxious to have a suitable orchestra for his works. After hearing Andrew Ashe perform at the Rotunda concerts, Salomon was so pleased with Ashe’s intonation and tone that he gave him a very liberal engagement for Hanover Square. On 24 February 1792, Ashe made his first public appearance in London at Salomon’s second concert in a manuscript concerto of his own composition which was filled with such novelty as to excite very considerable admiration. After this favourable debut, he became and remained the reigning first flute both as an orchestra and concerto player at all the established concerts in London. Upon the abdication of Monzani, Ashe was appointed principal flute at the Italian opera and he held that position for several years.
On 19 September 1799 at Cheltenham, Andrew Ashe married Mary Comer (1774-1843), a pupil of the celebrated Rauzzini, and she herself gained much celebrity as a vocal performer. They had several children and more than one of his daughters became successful public performers both as vocalists and as performers on the harp and piano. The eldest daughter married a gentleman of property in the West Indies. One of his sons, Edward David Ashe (1814-1895) was a Commander in the Royal Navy, and then settled in Canada where he was appointed the Director of the Observatory in Quebec.
Upon the death of Rauzzini in 1810, Andrew Ashe was unanimously elected Director of the Bath and Bristol concerts which he conducted with great ability for twelve years. Then in the winter of 1821/22, as a consequence of the times being unpropitious for public undertakings, he was induced to relinquish their management after losing a considerable sum of money in the last four years of his direction. Andrew Ashe passed the last few years of his life in Dublin where he died in 1838, and his funeral took place on 30 April 1838 at Merrion near Dublin.
Sylvanus Urban, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume X (1838)
A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and other stage personnel in London (1660-1800)