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Michael Altenburg
(1584-1640)
 
(b Alach, nr Erfurt, 27 May 1584; d Erfurt, 12 Feb 1640 ). German composer. He was sent to school at Erfurt in 1590 and went on to study theology at the university there in 1598, gaining the bachelor's degree in 1599 and the master's degree in 1603. He taught at Erfurt from 1600, beginning at the Reglerschule; from 1601 he was Kantor at St Andreas and from 1607 was also rector of the school connected with it. He abandoned teaching in 1609 and became a pastor: he worked in the parishes of Ilversgehofen and Marbach, near Erfurt, until 1610 and then moved to Tröchtelborn, near Gotha, where he stayed until 1621 and was probably also Kantor. He published most of his music during these years. He was likened to Orlande de Lassus as an 'Orlandus Thuringiae' and he himself was conscious of living at a time of great musical activity: as he wrote in the preface to his Intraden (1620), 'soon there will not be a single village, especially in Thuringia, in which music, both vocal and instrumental, will not flourish in good order with splendour or refinement, according to the resources of the place'.

This happy and musically fertile period in Altenburg's life came to an end when he moved to the Bonifaciuskirche at Sömmerda. His contemporaries continued to 'praise him as a most devout, exemplary and inspired preacher, and his hymns … are held in high esteem and are frequently sung in the churches of Gross-Sömmer and indeed throughout the whole locality'. The Thirty Years War, however, was bringing suffering to his homeland, and his creativity ceased. His congregation was decimated by plague in 1636; his wife died in 1637, and of their 13 children only three survived him. In 1637 the war drove him back to Erfurt, where he spent the rest of his life, first as deacon, then from 1638 as minister, of St Andreas.

Altenburg's church music was well known and greatly valued in his lifetime, and 17 of his melodies were used in congregational singing. His song Verzage nicht, du Häuflein klein!, to a text by Jacob Fabricius, became the marching song of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. He composed vocal concertos for large forces, including trumpets and timpani, in up to 18 parts, but his motet-like pieces and simple but effective chorale-based intradas with their independent instrumental ensembles show that he was also a master of relaxed, madrigalian textures in polyphonic forms. A concern with deeper significance co-exists in his works with a tendency towards simplification of expression and technical requirements: as Blume said 'he can perhaps be called the first popularizer in the Protestant church music of his age'.