Nigunim Laad
Jewish Tunes Forever



Joel Engel (1868—1927)

Joel (or Yoel, Yuliy Dmitrievich) Engel, was born in 1868 in the small Crimean town of Berdyansk and grew up outside of the Pale of Settlement. At that time, only a few hundred Jews lived in the whole Crimea, mostly assimilated. Both of his parents were secular, his father was a fairly wealthy merchant and amateur guitarist. Yuliy was fortunate to get into the “Jewish quota” and entered the local Russian gymnasium. As it quite usual for the middle class Jewish families, Yuliy was taught music from the childhood. In 1892 he graduated from the a theory class of the Kharkov School of Music. Yuliy took music very seriously and even dared to show his works to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who happened to be in Kharkov in 1893. Tchaikovsky found what he saw quite interesting and recommended Engel for admission to the Moscow Conservatory. After graduating from the faculty of law of the Kharkov University, Engel entered the conservatory, where his teachers were S. Taneev (class of polyphony and musical form), Arensky and M. Ippolitov-Ivanov (class of instrumentation and free composition).

Мusic critic

While still a student, Engel published reviews, critical essays and articles on the history of music in Moscow newspapers (Russian Musical Newspaper, Musical Contemporary, Courier). After graduating from the conservatory in 1897, Engel chose a career as a journalist working as the music critic of the influential Russian newspaper Russkiye Vedomosti. He becomes assistant editor, and in 1899-1918, an editor of the music department, where, since 1900, he regularly posts notes on theater, literature, and education. He became an influential figure in Russian musical life, supporting composers who wrote in the increasingly popular Russian nationalist style. In 1947, Jacob Weinberg published memoirs of his good friend and colleague. Russkie Vedomosti, writes Weinberg had a respected reputation as a 'professorial newspaper' - both university professors and journalism stars collaborated on it. Despite his youth and journalistic inexperience, Engel quickly gained recognition and is articles were highly appreciated in the artistic and academic circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow.


According to Weinberg, Engel had no interest in Jewish music until a catalyzing meeting in 1899 with Vladimir Stasov, probably the most respected Russian art critic, a honorary fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1900 (together with his friend Leo Tolstoy), and a leading proponent of Russian nationalism in art and music. Stasov wanted Russian art to liberate itself from what he saw as Europe's hold. By borrowing from artists’ own native traditions, they might create a truly national art that could match Europe's with its high artistic standards and originality. Stasov discovered a large number of Russian greatest talents, and inspiring composers who wrote in the increasingly popular nationalist style. At the same time, Stasov feeling a deep inner connection between the Bible and Western culture, admired and studied the Old Testament. Stasov played a key role in attracting Jews and Russians to Jewish culture. In 1872 he published an article "On Jewish Art". The Ginsburg family, the leaders of the St. Petersburg Jewish community, supported Jewish and non-Jewish artists in Russia and had close personal ties with the Vladimir Stasov. Stasov, a personal friend of Goratsii Gintsburg, oversaw the design of the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue. David Gintsburg, a communal leader and scholar of medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry, in collaboration with Stasov published L’Ornement hébreu (Hebrew Ornament; 1903), a handsomely illustrated book devoted to Jewish illuminated manuscripts.

Weinberg writes: “For me, a resident of Moscow, well acquainted with its ultra-Russian atmosphere, Engel's transformation remained a mystery for many years, until many years later I met him in Tel Aviv. During one of his visits to my studio on Ahad Haam Street, I finally asked Engel the crucial question: “Please tell me how it happened that you, an ordinary Russian intellectual, suddenly turned 180 degrees, becoming an ardent propagandist, a pioneer and a representative of Jewish music?”

Engel smiled: “You see,” he said, “as strange as it may seem, I owe a debt to the Russians, or rather, to one Russian. And he told me about a wonderful episode, a really fascinating story about what led to a decisive turn on a new path in his life. It was Epiphany night on the eve of Russian Easter, in Moscow, when the young Russian music critic Engel met his friend, the sculptor Mark Antokolsky, who was about to introduce Engel to the famous art critic Vladimir Stasov, an ardent champion of Russian national art. When guests entered his hotel room, they found Stasov in the company of the famous artist Repin, absorbed in Stasov's favorite theme of nationalism in art.

After Antokolsky introduced Engel, Stasov immediately attacked both Jews: "Listen, he exclaimed, addressing Antokolsky,"What was the idea to call yourself Mark—a Roman, Latin name? What do you have in common with Mark? Nothing of course. Are you ashamed of your Mordechai? I just can't figure it out. Where is your national pride? Don't you understand the majestic biblical splendor, all the nobility of Mordecai? Yes, yes, you must forget this ‘Mark’ and begin to be proud of your ancient aristocratic ancestor - Mordecai, the great Mordecai! ", shouted Stasov in ecstasy...

Then Stasov turned to Engel as a highly educated musician, urging him to study his own Jewish musical heritage. He reminded Engel of the temple music of the Levites, of the old synagogue liturgy with the cantorial singing, of the Yiddish folk songs he heard in the Russian countryside. Stasov shouted at Engel: "Where is your national pride in the music of your people!" At first, perplexed, Engel was shocked. This giant man with a long gray beard looked like a true personification of the biblical prophet ... His thunderous voice sounded like the voice of Isaiah, Elijah, or Jeremiah. Stasov's words struck Engel's imagination as a lightning - a Jew awakened in him. All Engel’s belief’s system was shattered by this long-bearded Russian. It was indeed the most important moment in his life, and also a great event for all of Israel - on this memorable evening professional Jewish art music was born”, writes Weinberg.


Engel experienced an epiphany, and in a few months later, in the summer of 1900 he set his first expedition into the Pale to explore the Jewish musical heritage. He along with colleagues Pesach Marek and Saul Ginsburg spends all summer listening, recording musical folklore. After returning to Moscow, he carefully sorted the material and harmonized the selected melodies, preparing them for publication. Two more such summers and, finally, in 1900, the first "Album of Ten Jewish Songs"was published by Engel at his own expense. He sends one of the first copies to Stasov with personal gratitude." Engel's work received repeated encouragement from Stasov, who believed that "a good half and perhaps more of all Gregorian. Ambrosian and other Christian melodies have Jewish roots. In his view, Jewish music was one component in a vast ocean of universal world music, consisting of folk and liturgical songs that, he assumed, were, at least at their roots, "of similar constitution, essence, character and form. The study of Jewish melodies, Stasov hoped, would "become one of the first foundation stones in the studies of contemporary, new European music.

Later that year, Engel organized his first public lecture with illustrations of Jewish music at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, supported by the music section of the Imperial Society of Natural Science, Anthropology and Ethnography. If for the assimilated Moscow Jewry this lecture hardly meant much, then for the few nationally minded, mostly young students who studied music, it became a real revelation, even a revolution. In an article of 1914, Saminsky recalled the first concert of Engel's music in St. Petersburg, given under the auspices of the Society on 12 April 1909. The young Jewish composers of St.-Petersburg heard for the first time Engels's artistic arrangements of Jewish folksongs [...] and were greatly surprised that such cultural and national value could result from such an enterprise. This concert stimulated the young Petersburg composers in the following period to the creation and performance of a whole series of Jewish song settings.

The far-reaching echo of Engel's lecture was the detailed commentary in the Russian-Jewish periodical Voskhod, which was read by the entire intelligentsia. At the same time, Jewish musical activity began in several centers, which culminated in the creation of OENM in St. Petersburg. Engel's polemic with L. Saminsky about the origin and development of Jewish music was published in the journal Jewish Week (1916). In 1909 OENM published a collection of Jewish folk songs collected and processed by Engel, and in 1914 he was elected honorary chairman of the Moscow branch of OENM. In 1911-14 Engel joined S. Ansky in field trips through the Pale of Settlement to collect folk songs of the Jewish communities. The researchers recorded the folksongs on wax cylinders using Thomas Edison's recently invented phonograph. This was one of the first uses of the phonograph in ethnomusicological research, a technique pioneered by Béla Bartók in Hungary four years earlier.


With the beginning of the revolution and after the closure of Russkiye Vedomosti as the “voice of the bourgeoisie” in the spring of 1918, Engel was recruited to work in the music department of the RSFSR People's Commissariat for Education, lectures at factories and factories, and begins work on the first Soviet musical dictionary. In 1922 he said to Rozovsky: "I bless the Russian revolution, because the Bolsheviks have closed all the newspapers, and, thank God, I have nowhere to work as a critic."

In 1920–22 he works as a music teacher at the Jewish orphans colony in Malakhovka near Moscow along with Mark Shagal, who worked as art teacher. Here he developed a distinctive pedagogical approach. Rather than concentrating on music theory, he instituted a "listening program". "There is no need - and is boring to everyone - ... to teach that a second is dissonant and a third is consonant... Rather we need... to let [children] listen to good music, ... to learn to love, enjoy, and live it,"he wrote. The approach was the start of a revolution in music pedagogy. Here Engel wrote his famous children's songs in Yiddish and later in Hebrew. He begins composing with a tenacity he didn't know before.


Together with Yevgeny Vakhtangov and the actors of the "Habima"theater, he participates in the production of S. An-sky's drama "Dibbuk". Director Yevgeny Vakhtangov asked Joel Engel to compose incidental music for the Moscow-based theatre company Habima. Written originally in Russian and then rewritten as a Yiddish play (which also enjoyed later film adaptations). According to subsequent accounts by the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, in which both Engel and An-Sky played key roles (also known less formally as the An-Sky Expedition), the two men had heard this particular dybbuk (demon) folk legend and “incident” from an innkeeper’s wife, and An-Sky later used it as the basis for his play. As a unifying and recurring thematic device for his score, Engel used a Hassidic tune whose origin (either as an original creation or one of the frequent Hassidic adoptions from surrounding Slavic repertoires) has been traced by oral tradition to the city of Vitebsk, or the region (Vitebsk oblast) in Belarus. Coincidentally, Vitebsk was An-Sky’s birthplace—but not the scene of the legendary dybbuk incident nor of its transmission to him and Engel while they were on the field expedition. Originally a wordless Hassidic niggun, the song became known later as Mipnei ma (Yoreda han’shama: “Why/wherefore/because of what [has the soul fallen….”]) only as a result of Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s Hebrew translation. Despite assumptions to the contrary, Jewish music historian Albert Weisser—the first real authority on the An-Sky expedition and on Engel—thought it highly unlikely that it had been An-Sky who conveyed the niggun to Engel during the expedition. Rather, Weisser was convinced that Engel had discovered it and decided to use it on his own. The theater toured throughout eastern Europe with the play which became an international hit. Engel's score became well-known. He later worked the score into a suite for string orchestra and clarinet. It was Engel's first work for the stage, and his only large-scale work; his other compositions are songs and short instrumental pieces. However, further cooperation between Engel and Habima never materialized, as the theater company experienced political troubles under the new post-revolutionary Russian regime, and was forced eventually to emigrate (first to America, and later to Palestine, where it eventually became the national theater company).


In 1922, the Society sent Engel on a mission to Germany, which after the war and revolution became one of the main places for refugees from Eastern Europe, to promote the Jewish music movement in the German Jewish community. After his recital in Moscow, Engel left Russia for good. With the help of friends, Engel gives several of his lecture-concerts in Leipzig and Berlin, including performances of his own songs and instrumental works, works by Krein, Gnesin, Rosowsky, and others. He meets with Achron. They perform together at the Jewish music concerts in Poland. At a concert in Berlin, Engel meets cellist Yehoakhin Stuchevsky, who has become his ardent supporter. The following year, Engel opened the Juwal (Yuval) publishing house in Berlin, which operated in Berlin from 1922-24. During his editorship, Yuwal mainly republished OENM publications and new works by Engel himself. Juwal became the main publisher for composers of the society, printing editions of songs and chamber works in the new Jewish style. He also assists in setting up a similar publishing house, Yibneh in Leipzig.


A fiery Zionist and one of the pioneers of OENM Arie Abilea (before repatriation - Lev Nesvizhsky) hoped that the arrival of such a venerable scientist and musician as Engel would turn Palestine into an important center for research and publication of Jewish music. In one of his first letters to a committee organized for this purpose, Engel wrote: "I am not a Zionist, but I treat the national element in general, and in human creativity in particular, as the highest value, and this brings me closer to Zionism." After negotiations, Engel accepted an offer of work at the Shulamit women's pedagogical seminary and in 1924, following Ahron, went to Palestine with his entire family. By now a renowned composer in the Jewish world, Engel's arrival was awaited anxiously by the Jewish community in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. He arrives in Jaffa in November 1924, but upon arrival falls ill with malaria. With Achron, who spent 4 months in Palestine and then invited to the United States to take part in the anniversary concert of his teacher Auer, they are not destined to see each other again.

Having recovered, Engel settles in Tel Aviv. He enthusiastically resumes active work, completing the registration of the Juwal publishing house within a few months. Hirschberg writes that in the 1920s, OENM members completely dominated the Palestinian music scene and their concept became synonymous with Jewish music. Their contribution received prestigious support in the work of Sabaneev, the publication of which coincided with Engel's visit. The festive atmosphere of Engel's arrival was further enhanced by the emigration of Rozovsky in April 1925 and the overwhelming success of Achron's concert tour in May 1924.

In addition to lectures and concerts, Engel teaches in Hebrew at the Shulamit seminary, gives private lessons in harmony and composition, publishes essays and reviews in newspapers and magazines (Teatron ve-ommanut, Davar), conducts choirs, continues to record and process musical folklore, publishes the collection "Shirey am yehudiim"("Jewish folk songs") in three volumes, writes music for performances. Concerned that children's songs at the time were either European tunes with new words in Yiddish or Hebrew, or Yiddish songs from the shtetl, Engel tried to create a new, indigenous style. "How can we sing the song of the Diaspora in the promised land?"he wrote in a letter. Many of his new songs were based on Yemenite melodies or motifs.

In April 1925, he became the musical director of the Ohel Theater, a socialist project where volunteer actors rehearsed in the evenings after their main job, one of the first theaters in Palestine. He organized and conducted the Ohel choir, and wrote many new songs for choir and solo. His songs were popular, and were sung throughout Palestine. He wrote incidental music for the original play "Neshef Peretz", which toured the Jewish settlements of Palestine. Engel worked without pay - all attempts by his friends to convince the education committee to pay a teacher's salary of 20 pounds a month to the venerable, 56-year-old musician, overwhelmed by the education of young children, failed. "I was pampered in Moscow and Berlin," wrote Engel in a letter in 1924. "... Here no one knows what Engel the composer wrote then, and what he is writing now." The always benevolent Engel expressed his disappointment in a letter to his Moscow friend David Shor, who was preparing for immigration: “Keep on dreaming until you are in the Holy Land. All dreams will end here. "Undoubtedly, Engel was deeply offended by the fact that a large part of his salary at the Shulamit school was constantly unpaid. Unsuccessfully, his friend Khopenko, who organized his visit, tried to find funds to pay for Engel's housing! …

In December 1926, after a choir concert, he caught a severe cold and died on February 11, 1927. The premiere of the play "Fishermen"(1927) took place in the theater "Ohel"after his death ... Achron, who learned of his death, dedicated his memory to Engel. "Elegy"for string quartet. The Tel Aviv City Council decided to pay a pension to Engel's widow (née Antonina Heifetz) and renamed one of the city's most beautiful streets in his honor.

Engel was one of the first - perhaps the first - musician to recognize that traditional Jewish music was not based on the major-minor tonal system that dominated classical and popular music of the period. "Most Jewish songs are built on the ancient modes (Aeolian, Dorian, Mixolydian, and so on)," he wrote in 1900. "Occasionally, one encounters major or minor; but more common are modes that are not written in our modern text books, and could be called 'eastern'."This harmonic conception is apparent in Engel's compositions. Engel's popular music, which during his lifetime dominated the popular music scene in Palestine, has been largely forgotten. Some of his songs, however, are still sung today. These include "Numi Numi", one of Israel's most popular lullabies; "Omrim Yeshna Eretz", the children's song "Geshem geshem mishamayim", and others.

Yoel Engel, the pioneer and founder of professional Jewish music, lived in Palestine for only 2 years. Who knows, maybe if the Tel Aviv city council would have made a decision a little earlier to pay Engel a salary - just that he was promised before moving, he would have been able to devote more time to creation ... Maybe he would not get sick ... who knows ... Despite all the efforts of Rozovsky and Stuchevsky to continue Engel's work, the loss was irreparable and the history of Jewish Art music has become as we know it.

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