Yo’el Engel leading a choir at a children’s colony, Malakhovka, near Moscow, ca. 1920, where he taught, composed, and lectured. Photograph by Sh. Koldavsky. (YIVO)

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Engel, Yo’el

(1868–1927), composer, music critic, musicologist, and ethnographer. Born to a middle-class family in Berdyansk, Crimea, Yo’el (Joel; in Russian, Iulii Dmitrevich) Engel received a law degree from the University of Kharkov in 1890, but at the urging of Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the composer Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915). Upon graduation, Engel was offered a position as a music critic and editor at Moscow’s leading liberal newspaper, Russkie vedomosti, a position he held until 1918.

Engel’s first serious involvement with Jewish music was as a member of a Moscow Jewish student group for which he composed a short Purim operetta in 1894. Inspired by the nascent Jewish nationalist movement and the growing field of Russian musical ethnography, Engel in 1898 began to collect Yiddish folk songs. In 1900–1901, Engel and historian-folklorists Peysekh Marek and Sha’ul Ginsburg presented a highly successful pair of public lecture-concerts in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which established Engel as the leading expert on Jewish music in the Russian Empire.

Yudishe kinder-lider far kinder-heymen, shuln, un familye (Jewish Children’s Songs for Children’s Homes, Schools, and Family), by Yo’el Engel (Moscow: Gezelshaft far Idishe Muzik, ca. 1915). Graphic design by Leonid Pasternak. (Gross Family Collection)

Engel’s passionate views led him at various times into public polemics, including a bitter exchange (1901–1902) with Sholem Aleichem and Yiddish popular songwriter Mark Warshawski (Varshavski) over the authenticity of the latter’s published compositions. Engel played a prominent role in the Society for Jewish Folk Music (1908–ca. 1919), serving as the leader of the Moscow chapter and chief organizer of the musical component of S. An-ski’s Ethnographic Expedition (1912–1914). He was also very involved in Jewish music publishing, issuing several folk-song collections and roughly 150 original compositions by himself and other Russian Jewish composers.

Beyond the realm of Jewish music, Engel also lectured and published widely on Russian and European concert music and translated and edited many important German musicological reference works. After 1905, he cofounded and taught at a music school in Moscow, known as the People’s Conservatory and designed as a populist, more egalitarian alternative to his own alma mater. When the Soviet Union was created, Engel continued teaching, composing, and lecturing in Moscow and at a children’s colony outside the city. From 1922 to 1924, he lived in Berlin, establishing the Yuval music publishing house, which reissued the works of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and published new pieces by Russian Jewish composers. In 1924 Engel moved to Tel Aviv and became active in local Jewish music circles as a teacher, choir conductor, theater composer, and touring lecturer.

In his last years, Engel focused new energy on his own compositions, in part inspired by the new Zionist musical culture of the Jewish community in pre-State Palestine. As a composer, Engel is best known for his vocal arrangements of modern Hebrew poetry and Yiddish folk songs and his Dibuk chamber music suite, written as incidental music for the Habimah Theater group’s production of S. An-ski’s play The Dybbuk. Following Engel’s death in 1927, his musical and literary manuscripts were returned to the Soviet Union by his wife and deposited in government archives in Kiev and Moscow. Today his name also lives on in the form of the city of Tel Aviv’s Engel Prize for Israeli composers.

Suggested Reading

Galina Kopytova, Obshchestvo evreiskoi narodnoi muzyki v Peterburge-Petrograde (St. Petersburg, 1997); James Loeffler, “‘The Most Musical Nation’: Jews, Culture and Nationalism in the Late Russian Empire” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2005); Klára Móricz, “Jewish Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Art Music” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1999); Menashe Ravina, Yo’el Engel veha-musikah ha-yehudit (Tel Aviv, 1947); Albert Weisser, The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music (New York, 1954).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 112, Music, Collection, 1846-1973; RG 1259, Vladimir Heifetz, Papers, 1920s-1970 (finding aid); RG 711, Lazar Weiner, Papers, 1908-1974; RG 712, Samuel Bugatch, Papers, 1924-1973.