Samuel Gottschall

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Samuel Gottschall-Vaez (1719-1811) was a Jewish composer responsible for creating Hebrew liturgical music. Born in the Austro-Hungarian kingdom in the part that is now Romania, he was sent as a child to his aunt in Vienna to study in the music conservatory and to be educated in Jewish studies. This was during the time of Kings Francis I (1708-1765) and Francis II (1768-1835). He wrote for them a regal 4 voice hymn the Hebrew prayer for the Welfare of the King and the government.[1]

Birth and early life

Gottschall’s origin on his mother’s side was Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This is reflected in his full name: Gottschall-Vaez. The Gottschall’s ancestors were refugees from Spain who escaped the Inquisition at the end of the fifteenth century. One ancestor of note was Jacoppo (c.1506) who represented the Jewish community in the Moslem area of Spain and elsewhere, finding places of refuge for the community after the expulsion.

We know how he was born – that he was illegitimate – because his father had already had numerous wives and a lot of children, and all were living in a dead end-street in Alba Julia and the street was called Turkish Street, because our ancestors were wearing turbans – not because they were Turks or spoke Turkish – they did not speak Turkish. Samuel Vaez would later be adopted through the marriage of his mother with his natural father, but only after 18 years. Thus his name became Samuel Gottschall-Vaez.

The adopted father of Samuel was Julius Gottschall. He died at 63 year of age in Germany. Azaria Gottschall was his grandfather and the one who educated Samuel Gottschall in Hebrew, mathematics, music and Latin. Azaria lived for many years in Cremona. Samuel Gottschall, for about 12 or 13 years, studied music in Vienna and became composer and troubadour singer, liturgical poet, Messianic poet, and classic composer.

Adult life

Gottschall’s was married. He and his wife were the same age. They had seventeen children. His wife passed away when he was thirty-eight years old and he never remarried. After his wife’s death he suffered bouts of deep depression. When he felt well he would travel to perform. But during the periods of depression he locked himself in his home and composed incessantly. And these were the times he composed the most beautiful music. But he also continued composing court music for the nobility in the area, teaching Latin, and training his Synagogue and Church choirs. He sent his Cantorial music to other cantors in Europe.

Later, Gottschall lived in seclusion in his home in the town of Cluj. He was a cantor, composer, and conductor at the local synagogue where he trained singers for the synagogue choir that performed his composed for Jewish traditional prayers, the liturgy for the Sabbath, and the Jewish holidays. He also taught music and Latin in a theological school across the street from his house in Piazza Carolina #5.

He was an observant Jewish cantor and at the same time, for his livelihood, he sang at Christian funerals — in the church courtyard. He would not enter the church. He also taught Latin to children in the local monastery school. (Hebrew was taught by another teacher, a Christian.)

We know that most of his life he was a troubadour, a singer singing in the street, singing at universities, singing in the churches, and later on became professor of Byzantine liturgy at the Greco-Catholic Theological University in Vlaj, teaching choruses and singing to the Romanian students. The history of this University tells a lot about their famous chorus and singers, singing throughout Europe and being received by the Pope.

At the age of 92 he came home in 1811, late December, from travel with his carriage. There was no snow whatsoever, but his servant who drove him home forgot about checking on him from time to time, and when they arrived at the house the servant opened the carriage and called him in the dark, and he didn’t answer. He touched him on the legs and discovered that he was frozen – a very skinny, tall man at 92 was dead from the cold that later on would freeze the army of Napoleon too.


Samuel Gottschall-Vaez passed away in Cluj at the age of ninety-two, still in good health but very thin. During the especially cold winter of 1811 Gottschall was returning quite late from a wedding where he had a singing engagement. His carriage broke down. The coachman went by foot to seek help. And when help arrived they found the Cantor frozen to death.

There are some eighteen gravestones with the name Gottschall in the Cluj cemetery.

Samuel Gottschall left a financial legacy too. In the 1800s a trust was set up in Switzerland for his descendants. Today some 175 people (including my informant) derive income from this trust.

Contributions to Jewish music

All his vocal liturgy is without accompanying musical instruments since according to Jewish law they cannot be used on the Sabbath and Holidays. He also composed secular music for a local prince — court dances.

Gottschall’s grandfather was a composer during the Renaissance era in Cremona, Italy. His name was Azaria, his music is extant in the family home, but never published. Gottschall’s brother is buried in Pressburg (now Bratislava). He was a physician and a cantor.

Gottschall conducted choirs in the monastery at Cluj where he had trained singers to compliment his synagogue choir when needed. When he wanted to perform for a larger crowd he had his choir perform in the small courtyard of the synagogue. The courtyard fence ran alongside the road so they could attract large audiences.

Samuel Gottschall’s music and his name has been forgotten for these two hundred fifty years, but a few melodies survive in the cantorial tradition and are still in use. Two of them appear in a collection of Jewish melodies compiled by Lewandowsky in the nineteenth century as “anonymous.” They are Emet Ve’emunah and an Adoshem Malach.

Family and friends

Samuel Gottschall did not go to work because he needed to make a living – he was extraordinarily rich. He worked throughout his life because he had a fanatic passion to work, and he lived by that rule – yet, he was a man that very few could approach. Somehow he was paranoid about the people and he had fear of people.

The Gottschall family was a very prosperous family who began as blacksmiths but eventually became armorsmiths. They made fancy horseshoes and trappings for the wealthy and eventually manufactured weapons. Their wealth was such that Samuel Gottschall could serve as a banker in that he made loans to the nobility. The family mixed with gentiles (Cossacks) and was elevated to the nobility. At this point their identity as Jews was suppressed and secreted away.

The destruction of Gottschall's music after the Second World War

Our search for Gottschall history took us to the University in Vlaj, where we discovered that the Communists confiscated the University, arrested most of the professors and put them into hard labor for a few decades. The libraries and archives were confiscated and sent to the University of Eastern Orthodox in Sibiu, and we went there, but they were locked and sealed. We were not allowed to even go close, so this frustrated our effort to bring about knowledge of his life.

In the Austria-Hungary empire during his life, the Hapsburg dominions, there was no publication of Jewish materials, so much of Gottschall’s Jewish music was not published at the time. Gottschall’s music circulated only in handwritten copies.

After the Gottschall family converted to Christianity, Gottschall’s vast output of music was locked away. My informant tells me that there are four separate locks to the archive where his music is kept. My informant who does not want the family name to be published, states that his mother, now deceased, told him that it was “a crime” to hide this legacy of Jewish music. She secretly provided him with this volume of liturgy to take out of Romania saying that she thought it represented the “cream” of Gottschall’s output.

As members of the nobility my informant and all the family were dispossessed of their estates and other property with the Communist takeover after the Second World War. My informant suffered especially; he was imprisoned, and tortured during internal exile. The Communists however were not interested in the Jewish materials and left them as they were.

After the fall of the Communist government in the early nineties my informant left Romania and eventually wound up here in the United States, bringing with him the now transcribed and transliterated music essentially “stolen” from the archive.

The truth is that even today a (formerly) noble family in Romania can not comfortably reveal any Jewish ancestry. And my informant, a dutiful son, having fulfilled his mother’s wishes, now thinks it may be dangerous for him to return to that country. After so much work to prepare the music for publication, he even wants to withdraw it.

Members of the family housing the archive of Gottschall music have made a number of attempts to make these manuscripts available to the general public. In Vienna, Gustave Mahler was approached but he said that he could not sacrifice the rest of his life for Gottschall’s religious music, and he didn’t like religious music anyhow. Also Georges Enesco was interested and visited the archive, but he also realized that just the labor of simple transcription would take years. In fact only the development of the computer has made the transcription and editing of these works a feasible proposition.


  1. "The Complete Choral Works of Samuel Gottschall". The Complete Choral Works of Samuel Gottschall.