This Day in Jewish History / The Lawyer Who Saved Jewish Music Dies

A chance rebuke propelled the lawyer Yoel Engel into a new career: collecting the 'national music' of the Jewish people.

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Composer/musicologist Joel Engel, left, with an Edison phonograph, c. 1924.
Composer/musicologist Joel Engel, left, with an Edison phonograph, c. 1924.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

February 11, 1927, is the day on which composer and musicologist Joel Engel died. Engel was a lawyer and intellectual who, shaken up by the offhand remark of a non-Jewish friend, overnight became the self-appointed guardian and revivalist of the Jews’ musical heritage. To this day, he is considered the father of modern Jewish “art music.”

Yuliy Dmitrievich Engel was born in 1868 in Berdyansk, in Crimea (a territory today claimed by both Ukraine and Russia). The town was outside the Pale of Settlement, where most Jews of the czarist empire were required to reside. His family was secular.

Engel studied law at the University of Kharkov, in northeastern Ukraine. He earned his degree in 1890, though he never apparently practiced law, and then, in 1893, at the urging of Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, he began to study music composition at the Moscow Conservatory. Following graduation, Engel became a music critic at Russkiye Vedomosti, a liberal Russian paper.

His fateful chance encounter with critic Vladmir Stasov, who was a champion of composers like Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov – who were reviving the “national” music of the Russian people in classical musical settings – took place in 1899. That was when Stasov chided Engel for not undertaking a similar mission on behalf of the Jews, reportedly shouting at him: “Where is your pride in the music of your own people?”

According to Jacob Weinberg, a close friend of Engel’s (as quoted by scholar Yoel Epstein, on the website of the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Stasov’s admonition “struck Engel’s imagination like lightning this was the memorable night when Jewish art music was born.” 

From that point, Yoel Engel, as he began to call himself, devoted himself to collecting and transcribing the music of Russian Jews. He moved back to Berdyansk for purposes of research, and then, beginning in 1901, traveled back periodically to Moscow and St. Petersburg to present concert-lectures on what he had discovered.

Engel was friends with a group of musicians who founded, in 1908, the Society for Jewish Folk Music, which gathered, published and performed Jewish music throughout Russia. Engel organized their concerts, which included many of the songs collected by him.

Generally, the arrangements were for some small combination of piano, strings and voice. Among those who participated in the society’s concerts were the young Jascha Heifetz, who would become a world-famous violinist, and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

Music for ‘The Dybbuk’

Engel’s ethnographic contribution only grew after 1912, when he joined the writer S. Ansky on his landmark tour of the Pale of Settlement, and recorded folk songs of the Jews he encountered, on wax cylinders. According to the website of Pro Musaica Hebraica, a U.S.-based organization that organizes regular recitals of Jewish music, “The results of this expedition included hundreds of musical transcriptions and early field recordings that became the inspiration and source material for Jewish composers down to the present.”

The collaboration with Ansky also resulted in Engel’s composition of incidental music for the play – written by Ansky on the basis of a folk tale the pair heard in their travels – called “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.”

“The Dybbuk” was first produced in 1920 in Warsaw by the Vilna Troupe, performing in Yiddish. The following year, a Hebrew version, translated by Haim Nahman Bialik, was staged in Moscow by Habima Theater, which later made its home in Tel Aviv. The play remains popular to this day.

Shortly after his relocation to Berlin to run a music-publishing company called Yuval, established by the Society for Jewish Folk, Engel changed tack and moved to Tel Aviv, in 1924.

Once in Palestine, Engel both taught and composed, mostly children’s music and folk tunes. He also became associated with a local Hebrew theater company, Ohel, writing music and conducting its choir. He also began to incorporate Yemenite themes into his music.

Yoel Engel died in Tel Aviv on this date in 1927, at the age of 59 or 60.

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