Eric Bontempo, Wake Forest University
The extraordinary music career of Isaac Nathan (1792-1864) spans over 50 years and two continents. A renowned musical composer in England and Australia, Nathan drew upon his Jewish faith and knowledge of synagogal music in his compositions. He gave singing lessons to the Princess Charlotte of Wales and maintained a long friendship with Lady Caroline Lamb, but Nathan is best remembered for his collaboration with the poet Lord Byron on A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern (1815). Nathan, for the most part, supplied the music to accompany Byron’s lyrics. Other musicians may have already set Byron’s poetry to music without the poet’s express permission, but Nathan would be Byron’s only true musical colleague with whom he would directly collaborate (Pont 53-54). Shortly before Byron’s final departure from England, and following painful divorce proceedings, Nathan sent him some matzot, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten during Passover. Byron’s acknowledgement of the kind gift is equally touching and a subtle reference to their most popular Hebrew Melody, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”: “The unleavened bread shall certainly accompany me in my pilgrimage … the Motsas shall be to me a charm against the destroying Angel wherever I may sojourn” (qtd. in Bidney 62). Nathan would cherish their friendship for the rest of his life, referring to his home in Sydney as “Byron’s Lodge.” When he emigrated to Australia in 1840, Nathan would continue as a music teacher and composer, developing several well-known operas and referred to by some as the “Father of Australian Music.”
The son of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland, Isaac Nathan was born about 1792 in Canterbury in the district of Kent. He lived there with his parents until the age of 13 when his father sent him to Solomon Lyon’s boarding school in Cambridge. This secular boarding school, “the first of its kind in Anglo-Jewry,” was modeled after Moses Mendelssohn’s enlightenment movement in Berlin (Baron 19). There, he learned Hebrew, German, and probably Aramaic (Conway 86). This education provided Nathan with an avenue to attend Cambridge University, although his religion prevented him from taking a degree. Before turning 18 in 1810, Nathan moved to London to be apprenticed to Domenico Corrie, “one of the premier singer masters, music publishers, and concert promoters in London” (Bidney 60). Nathan thus joined a family of famed musical composers, for Corrie had been trained by the esteemed Italian composer Nicolo Porpora (1686-1768), who had also trained Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Shortly into his apprenticeship with Corrie, Nathan became his chief assistant (Baron 19). However, there is some doubt as to the extent of direct contact between Corrie and Nathan (Conway 87).
Nathan’s musical genius had already surfaced much earlier as a young boy. Nathan was known to play the violin and harpsichord incessantly, waking his parents on at least one occasion at 4 A.M. Nathan’s father, Menahem Mona, claimed a distinguished lineage as the illegitimate son of the last Polish king, Stanislaus Paniatowski, by his Jewish mistress. In his role as chazan of the congregation in Canterbury, he encouraged his son’s love and knowledge of music (Catherine Mackerras’s 1963 biography of Nathan refers to Mona as “the Cantor of Canterbury”) (Bidney 60). In addition to Isaac Nathan, one of Mona’s daughters played the harp professionally, and another son, either Baruch or Barnet, would go on to found “a successful pleasure garden as Rosherville outside Rochester,” where he would sometimes play a hornpipe blindfolded while avoiding eggs laid out on the stage (Conway 87). Nathan’s father originally intended for his son to carry the family legacy forward by becoming a rabbi, but these plans changed when Nathan became Corrie’s apprentice. During (or shortly after) his apprenticeship, Nathan performed briefly as a concert tenor. William Hazlitt listened to one of Nathan’s performances, and he noted that his voice lacked sufficient volume (Bidney 60). This minor setback, however, did not prevent Nathan from having a long and successful career as a composer and singing teacher.
While his most famous pupil is undoubtedly the Princess Charlotte of Wales, another notable pupil of Nathan’s was one of his earliest: Rosetta Worthington. Nathan, aged 20, and Worthington, aged 17, would fall in love and marry in 1812, much to her titled family’s displeasure. Two weddings would take place, one in a church in Kensington and another, three months later, at a London synagogue (Baron 19). According to David Conway, “this stance of keeping a foot within each community Nathan retained throughout his life” (87). The allowance of an interracial marriage by this London synagogue, Conway continues, “is perhaps an instance of the reciprocal flexibility offered by British Jews given the relatively easy-going approach of the host society” (87). The couple would have six children together, but she would die in 1824. Although the ketubah (marriage contract) survives today, there is some doubt as to whether Rosetta’s conversion to Judaism was legitimate since her grave was placed “at the side” in Brompton Cemetery (Conway 87). Nathan would later marry Henrietta Buckley in 1826 (Mackerras).
Nathan is most remembered today for his Hebrew Melodies, for which he collaborated with the poet Lord Byron and dedicated to Princess Charlotte. The idea for a selection of Hebrew Melodies came to Nathan sometime before May 1813. Probably inspired by the vogue for “national airs”—that is, the poetry and music from Britain’s Celtic regions—Nathan proposed a publication of Hebrew Melodies that would resemble Edward Jones’s Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards (1784/94) and Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies (1807). At the very earliest stages of this project’s development, Nathan advertised in Gentleman’s Magazine to stake out his claim to publish “Hebrew Melodies. All of them upward of 1000 years old, and some of them performed by the antient [sic] Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple” (qtd. in Conway 88). While Nathan could confidently believe in his abilities as a musical composer with insights into synagogal music, he knew that he would need to procure the assistance of an esteemed poet to supply lyrics in English (and to secure the legitimacy of the project in the eyes of the general—non-Jewish—public).
He first sought a partnership with Sir Walter Scott, but Scott declined the invitation. Nathan then wrote to Lord Byron in a letter that included a portion of Byron’s Bride of Abydos set to music (Baron 19-20). Byron either did not receive or ignored this letter, so Nathan attempted a second time to solicit the poet’s services, writing, in part, “I have with great trouble selected a number of very beautiful Hebrew melodies of undoubted antiquity, some of which are proved to have been sung by the Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem … I am most anxious that the Poetry for them should be written by the first Poet of the present age” (qtd. in Ben-Merre 12-13). According to David Ben-Merre, Byron may not have received this rather obsequious letter either, but fortunately for Nathan, a mutual friend intervened. Douglas Kinnaird facilitated a meeting between the musician and the poet, to which Byron promptly replied: “My dear Nathan—You must dine with me to-day at Seven o’clock. I take no refusal” (qtd. in Ben-Merre 13). Thus, their collaboration commenced and would continue until shortly before Byron left England in exile in 1816.
In April 1815, Nathan published the first of many editions of Hebrew Melodies that would appear over the next three decades. The first edition contained twelve songs, each produced by a varying method. Some songs were the product of Byron extemporizing words to the melodies Nathan played to him; in other cases, Nathan created melodies to fit the rhythm of Byron’s lyrics. For example, the delightful musical arrangement for “She Walks in Beauty” contrasts with the awkward and forced arrangement for “On Jordan’s Banks”: “The former uses a tune of the hymn Adon Olam from the London synagogues, clearly more European folk-song than Jewish in origin; the latter uses the common tune for the Hanukkah hymn ‘Ma’oz Tzur’, which Werner links to a chorale by Luther and a German folk-song” (Conway 88-89). It is evident that Nathan’s initial scheme for the project had to evolve based on Byron’s offerings. What was initially to be a collection of Hebrew Melodies “upward of 1,000 years old, and some … performed by the antient [sic] Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple” turned into a work that Joseph Slater calls “a book almost as secular as The Bride of Abydos” (86). This is partly the fault of Byron, whom critics at the time perceived as disingenuous in his treatment of biblical subjects. Nathan, for the most part, delivered musical arrangements as advertised: ten of the twelve songs had, indeed, historically been used in the synagogue; however, none of the melodies could be considered ancient, instead dating to after the age of missinai hymns (tenth to eleventh centuries). According to Conway, “many are clearly contrafacti from European folk-songs. Some doubtless are Nathan’s own confections” (88). In subsequent editions, Nathan would release additional songs that would eventually bring the total of Hebrew Melodies up to twenty-eight.
Although Hebrew Melodies is typically characterized as a work arising between Nathan and Byron, there was a third collaborator, no less integral to the project’s development and fame. Among Nathan’s early subscribers to his projected volume was John Braham, a Jewish cantor who had been baptized into the Church of England. Like Nathan, Braham was a musical composer—and, more importantly to this project, a famed concert tenor. The two colleagues first met in Corrie’s shop while Nathan was still Corrie’s pupil (Conway 87). According to Nathan’s letters, Braham suggested a partnership, proposing to sing the Hebrew Melodies in public and aid Nathan in the arrangement of the songs in exchange for an “equal share in the publication” (qtd. in Pont 51). Thus, Braham’s and Nathan’s names appear together in the first edition as joint composers. As Graham Pont’s scholarship has recently emphasized, Nathan’s involvement in the arrangement of the Hebrew Melodies has been somewhat overestimated: “Though he orchestrated the whole project, Nathan played second fiddle to Braham—at least for the first appearance of the Melodies” (Pont 52). A few weeks after the publication of A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, “premier performances” of some of the Melodies took place at Covent Garden for the Whitsun Eve oratorio concert. Catherine Stephens sang “Jeptha’s Daughter,” and John Braham sang “The Wild Gazelle.” Subsequent reviews, probably written anonymously by Nathan, in the Monthly Theatrical Reporter (June 1815), the New Monthly Magazine (May 1, 1815), and the British Lady’s Magazine paint Braham as heavily involved in arranging and composing certain Hebrew Melodies, such as “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” “Francisca,” and “The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept” (Pont 53).
The collaboration and genuine friendship with Lord Byron propelled Nathan into new social circles. Not only was he giving singing lessons to Princess Charlotte while working on Hebrew Melodies, but he also forged new alliances and friendships with the élite, most notably, Lady Caroline Lamb, who became godmother to one of Nathan’s daughters. Though no official records exist, most biographies of Nathan claim that he served as music librarian to George IV when he was Prince Regent and later the King (Conway 90). All of these social connections, though, would prove unreliable. Byron left England in exile shortly after the publication of Hebrew Melodies, thus concluding their partnership forever, and Princess Charlotte would die in 1817. Before leaving his royal post, Nathan had reportedly performed “some espionage” for William IV, probably aiding in the cover-up of affairs. For these secretive tasks, Nathan was never repaid, and Queen Victoria’s administration refused to recognize the debt when she became queen in 1837 (Bidney 60). Finally, there were unconfirmed rumors that Nathan became embroiled in an argument with (and attempted blackmail against) Lady Caroline Lamb’s husband, Lord Melbourne, who had refused Nathan’s request for employment at some point in the 1820s (Conway 93).
Erratic behavior and irresponsible business decisions by Nathan would lead to increased debt. He was known to gamble—and lose money—in the prize-ring: “During the 1820s he briefly cut a swell figure as a ‘well-known Israelitish sporting man,’ patron and backer of the Jewish lightweight Barney Aaron, and he sometimes acted as his second in the fights” (Pont 62). Among the most damaging financial decisions was a failed attempt at music publishing with his son, Barnet, that ended in bankruptcy (Conway 90). Throughout these tumultuous years following the publication of Hebrew Melodies, Nathan developed comic operas and burlettas in collaboration with the librettist James Kenny. One such pasticcio opera was Sweethearts and Wives (1823) that included the popular song “Why are you wand’ring here, I pray” (Wood). Nathan continued as a music teacher, even converting his house, at one point, into a music academy (Conway 90-91). He taught the poet Robert Browning as a boy, who, in an 1887 letter, praised his former teacher for employing “certain traditional Jewish methods of developing the voice” (qtd. in Conway 91).
Nathan authored two other books while still living in England. Both—to varying extents—sought to capitalize on his friendship with Bryon. The first, Musurgia Vocalis, An Essay on the History and Theory of Music, and on the Qualities, Capabilities, and Management of the Human Voice (1823), emphasizes “the Jewish contribution to vocal music” and contains anecdotal insights into Byron and Nathan’s collaboration on Hebrew Melodies’ “Jeptha’s Daughter” and “By the Waters of Babylon” (Conway 91; Bidney 61). In 1829, Nathan continued to capitalize on his partnership with Byron by editing and publishing The Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron. Several of Byron’s friends, acquaintances, and even enemies published their accounts of the recently deceased poet as Byron’s name and works continued to be extremely popular and profitable (see Matthew Iley’s 1826 The life, writings, opinions, and time of … Lord Byron and James Kennedy’s 1830 Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron). Along with publishing “fugitive” (unpublished) poems purportedly by Byron, Nathan’s “uneven” account of their collaboration typically portrayed Nathan as “the part of l’allegro or cheerful counterpart to Byron’s melancholic pensero” (Bidney 64). According to Bidney, Musurgia (1823) and Fugitive Pieces (1829) define Nathan’s literary persona as having three main aspects: “1) a spirit of sympathetic inclusiveness, shown by the wish to find analogies for Jewish experiences in those of other cultural groups, 2) a sanguine or affirmative temperament, expressed repeatedly in Nathan’s memoirs as a desire to help Byron dispel his demon of melancholy, and 3) a relaxed attitude toward serious (mainly biblical) subjects, expressed by an engaging willingness to treat them in a spirit of graceful good humor” (61).
To escape mounting financial pressure, Nathan removed himself and his family from England in October 1840 in favor of Australia for what would be a lively second act to his career. Early in 1841, he appeared in Melbourne to give several concerts, and he then settled in Sydney in the house he affectionately called “Byron’s Lodge” (Baron 27). He started his own musical type and publishing business and lectured at Sydney College (Wood). Additionally, he became choral director at St. Mary’s Cathedral and musical adviser to the synagogue in Sydney (Conway 93). Along with arranging the first productions of Mozart’s operas and Beethoven’s works in Australia, Nathan published the first Australian operas: Merry Freaks in Troublesome Times (1844) and Don John of Austria (1847). The former, though never performed, was a comic opera about Charles II, and the later, another comic opera, tells the story of a Spanish-Jewish heroine who falls in love with Don John, who discovers, by the end of the opera, that he, too, is Jewish—and all ends well. Performed in the Victorian Theatre in Sydney, Don John of Austria became the first opera to be staged in Australia (Wilde).
Further embedding himself into Australian culture, Nathan would often compose odes dedicated to significant public events. He wrote “Australia the Wide and Free” to commemorate Sydney’s first municipal council in 1842. Then, to celebrate the fifty-eighth anniversary of Sydney’s founding, he wrote Currency Lasses (1846). He also memorialized the death of a great Australian explorer with “Leichhardt’s Grave” (Mackerras). An important, though undervalued, Australian achievement is Nathan’s publication of The Southern Euphrosyne and Australian Miscellany (1849). This miscellany includes sections of Aboriginal music, making Nathan “the first European to show any interest in Australian aboriginal music,” even though his arrangements are unfortunately tinged with Victorian musical conventions. Nathan, nonetheless, paid acute attention to the unusual shifts of rhythm in Aboriginal music (Conway 93).
His last composition A Song to Freedom (1863) was dedicated to Queen Victoria (Wood). Although he died in 1864 after a fall from descending a horse-drawn tram, Nathan’s musical legacy would continue through his descendants’ contributions. Most notably, Harry Nathan wrote the music for Australia’s most famous song, “Waltzing Matilda” (Baron 27). The famed Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) is also descended from Isaac Nathan (Wood).
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Baron, Jeremy H. “Byron’s Passovers and Nathan’s Melodies.” Judaism, vol. 51, no. 1, 2002, pp. 19–29.
Ben-Merre, David. “Reading Hebrew Melodies.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 11–32.
Bidney, Martin. “Motsas for Lord Byron: The Judeo-British Literary Persona of Isaac Nathan.” Byron Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 1997, pp. 60-70.
Burwick, Frederick and Paul Douglass, editors. A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, by Isaac Nathan and Lord Byron. University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Hebrew Melodies. John Murray, 1815.
Conway, David. Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Innett, Caroline. “Don John of Austria: Australia’s first opera.” M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, no. 73, 2007. Gale Literature Resource Center.
Krummel, Donald W. Notes, vol. 22, no. 2, 1965, pp. 903–04. JSTOR.
Mackerras, Catherine. The Hebrew Melodist: A Life of Isaac Nathan. Currawong Publishing Co., 1963.
—. “Nathan, Isaac (1790–1864).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nathan-isaac-2502.
Phillips, Olga Somech. Isaac Nathan, Friend of Byron. Minerva Publishing Company, 1940.
Slater, Joseph. “Byron’s Hebrew Melodies.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49, 1952, pp. 75-94.
Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews. “Nathan, Isaac.” The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature.
Wood, Elizabeth. “Nathan, Isaac.” Grove Music Online.
The Alcaid, or, The Secrets of Office: A Comic Opera in Three Acts. T. Dolby, 1825.
An Essay on the History and Theory of Music, and on the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice. G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1823.
Don John of Austria. Sydney, n.d.
Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron: Containing an Entire New Edition of the Hebrew Melodies with the Addition of Several Never Before Published; the Whole Illustrated with Critical, Historical, Theatrical, Political, and Theological Remarks, Notes, Anecdotes, Interesting Conversations, and Observations, Made by That Illustrious Poet; Together with His Lordship’s Autograph; Also Some Original Poetry, Letters and Recollections of Lady Caroline Lamb. Whittaker, Treacher, and Co., 1829.
The Illustrious Stranger, or Married and Buried. William Kenneth, 1827.
Koorinda Braia. Sydney, 1842.
Long Live our Monarch, a New National Air, for Voice and Chorus, with Full Orchestra Accompaniments. Lee, 1830.
Memoirs of Madame Malibran de Bériot. J. Thomas, 1836.
Merry Freaks in Troublous Times, an Historical Operatic Drama, in Two Acts. Cramer, Addison & Beale, 1851.
Musurgia Vocalis: An Essay on the History and Theory of Music and on the Qualities, Capabilities, and Management of the Human Voice. Fentum, 1836.
A Selection of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern, Newly Arranged, Harmonized. London, 1829.
A Selection of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern with Appropriate Symphonies and Accompaniments by J. Braham and I. Nathan, the Poetry Written Expressly for the Work By the Right Honble Lord Byron. First Number. London, 1815.
A Selection of Hebrew Melodies. Second Number. London, 1816.
Series of Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Music. Sydney and London, 1846.
The Southern Euphrosyne and Australian Miscellany, Containing Oriental Moral Tales, Original Anecdote, Poetry and Music, An Historical Sketch with Examples of the Native Aboriginal Melodies Put into Modern Rhythm, and Harmonized as Solos, Quartettes, &c. Whittaker & Co., 1849.
Sweethearts and Wives: A Popular Comedietta, in Two Acts. J. Kenney, 1823.
Triboulet, or, the King’s Jester. London, 1840. [lost]