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Joel Engel was born in Berdyansk, Russia (Ukraine) and studied music at the Kharkov and the Moscow conservatories. From 1897 to 1919 Engel worked as a music critic for the newspaper Russkiye Vedomosti. The year 1900 marked a significant change in the direction of Engel's work; he began collecting, arranging, performing and publishing songs from Eastern European Jewish communities. His work attracted many young composers and musicians, and led to the formation of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908. In 1912 Engel participated in S. An-Ski's ethnographical mission to Russia to collect folk songs of the Jewish communities settled there.
Engel cemented his reputation as a serious composer of Jewish art music with the premiere of the Moscow production of An-Ski's dramatic legend Dybbuk, for which he wrote the incidental music. In 1922 Engel left the Soviet Union for Berlin, where he helped found the Yuval Publishing House, under which many of his compositions, including the orchestral suite from Dybbuk, were published.
Engel spent the last years of his life in Tel Aviv as a composer, teacher and choir director.