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Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach

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Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach (b Naumburg, c1530; d Leipzig, bur. 29 Jan 1597). German organist and arranger. He studied at the Leipzig University (1548-9) and probably abroad, and was organist at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, 1561-95. His Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur (1571), the first printed German organ tablature, introduced ‘new German’ notation in which pitches are expressed by letters with rhythm-signs above. It contains arrangements for organ or other keyboard instrument of vocal works and dances; some are lavishly decorated, as are the arrangements in his Ein new künstlich Tabulaturbuch (1575).

Many musical reference books describe Ammerbach as an arranger rather than a composer of music. That is a fair assessment of his work, since much of his writing was purely transcriptive and none of it was entirely original. Among his most important contributions was his introduction of a new tablature for organ music, which when published in 1571 represented the first organ or other keyboard music printed in Germany.

Ammerbach was born sometime around 1530 in Naumburg, Germany. Like so many Renaissance-era figures, he led a life that was only sparsely documented, leaving many biographical voids. Yet from surviving accounts, it’s known that he was a modest man of easygoing temperament, apparently unconcerned with ambition. He himself revealed that he had a love of music from his earliest childhood days. It is likely his first serious exposure to music came a boy chorister in a church choir, though he may also have taken lessons from a local organist, since he seems to have developed strong keyboard skills at least by his mid-teens.

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