Interwoven Voices of the Religious Landscape: G.S. Ensel and Musical Populism in the Nineteenth-Century American Synagogue

On 16 March 1894, the small Jewish population of Paducah, Kentucky, dedicated its new synagogue building, featuring the Moorish architecture fashionable at the time. The dramatic affair reportedly involved, among other participants, “a choir consisting of twenty‐four voices, selected from the best singers in the churches of our city.” Sixty‐six‐ year‐old volunteer music director Gustav S. Ensel, who enjoyed much local admiration, directed the group. A reporter writing to Cincinnati’s American Israelite highlighted Ensel’s “profound knowledge of music” and lauded his efforts to adapt “the very choicest compositions from the [Classical] masters ... Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, and other luminaries of music ... to the texts of a Jewish hymnal.” Then, in perhaps an unexpected turn, the reporter added that Ensel “has always prided himself on the fact that he never composed a piece of music himself.” Implicitly criticizing the high cultural strivings of a “Jewish chazzan educated in the school of Sulzer, Naumb[o]urg, and other shining lights of music,” Ensel considered “Jewish” sound in a more populist frame, as “a style of music which is at once suitable to the modern tastes of our co‐religionists.” The program of arrangements from works by Meyerbeer, Rossini, Mercadante, and Mozart, as if by illustration, appeared to gratify the assembled ecumenical crowd deeply.

Publication Date:
Date Submitted:
Jul 13 2018
American Jewish Archives Journal
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 Record created 2018-07-13, last modified 2019-04-03

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