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Isaac Nathan

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Isaac Nathan was an Anglo-Australian composer, musicologist, journalist and self-publicist (c. 1792–15 January 1864) who ended an eventful career of triumph and failure by becoming the "father of Australian music".

Early success

Born in 1792 in the English city of Canterbury to a hazzan (Jewish cantor) of Polish birth, Menahem Monash "Polack" (the Pole) and his English Jewish wife, Isaac Nathan was initially destined for his father's career and went to the school of Solomon Lyon in Cambridge. Showing an enthusiasm for music, he was apprenticed to the London music publisher Domenico Corri. He also claimed to have had five years of voice lessons with Corri, who had studied with Nicola Porpora. In 1813 he conceived the idea of publishing settings of tunes from synagogue usage and persuaded Lord Byron to provide the words for these. The result was the poet's famous Hebrew Melodies. Nathan's setting of these remained in print for most of the century, although they display the sad truth that, as throughout his life, Nathan's enthusiasm exceeded his actual talents.

The Hebrew Melodies used, for the most part, melodies from the synagogue service, though few if any of these were in fact handed down from the ancient service of the Temple in Jerusalem, as Nathan claimed. Many were European folk-tunes that had become absorbed into the synagogue service over the centuries with new texts (contrafacta). However they were the first attempt to set out the traditional music of the synagogue, with which Nathan was well acquainted though his upbringing, before the general public. To assist sales, Nathan recruited the famous Jewish singer John Braham to place his name on the title page, in return for a share of profits, although Braham in fact took no part in the creation of the Melodies.

The success of the Melodies gave Nathan some fame and notoriety. Nathan was later to claim that he had been appointed as singing teacher to the Princess Royal, Princess Charlotte, and music librarian to the Prince Regent, later George IV. There is no evidence for this, although his edition of the Hebrew Melodies was dedicated to the princess by royal permission.


However in 1816 Byron left England never to return (nor to communicate further with Nathan). In 1817 Nathan's royal pupil died in childbirth. Nathan's glory days seemed over almost as soon as they had begun.

Nathan's two great enemies were debt and his own impetuosity. The latter led him to undertake a runaway marriage with a pupil, and another after his first wife's early death. Both spouses were Christian; however for both, Nathan also undertook and arranged synagogue marriages after the church ceremony. His hot temper and tendency to self-delusion undoubtedly also account for a duel he fought over the honour of Lady Caroline Lamb, and his assault of an Irish nobleman who he thought had impugned one of his female pupils. The latter saw Nathan prosecuted, although he was acquitted. Nathan felt a special attachment for Lady Caroline; she was godmother to one of his children and he wrote her an appreciative poem in Hebrew, which he reprints in his Recollections of Lord Byron.

Perhaps it was his early, heady success which led to him being profligate with money, although it has been suggested that an addiction to gambling on prize-fights was a root cause of his financial problems. The question of how he earned his living in England between 1820 and his emigration in 1841 is tangled, although it seems that at least some months might have been spent in debtors' prisons. He wrote frequently for the popular press in London, especially about boxing. Music was clearly always involved. He wrote comic operas for the London stage, and four of these were produced between 1823 and 1833. His copyright for Hebrew Melodies ought to have brought him income — at one point he sold it to his married sister, presumably to avoid it being lost in bankruptcy — but it became involved in complex legal disputes. He attempted a publishing business in partnership with his brother Barnett Nathan, who later became proprietor of Rosherville Gardens. Nathan published an interesting history of music (1823), dedicated by permission to King George IV, which shows in its treatment of Jewish music a great deal of understanding of the Bible and of Jewish traditions, and the Byron Reminiscences already mentioned.

Nathan also attracted some renown as a singing teacher. One of his pupils was another great English poet, the very young Robert Browning, who 60 years later recalled: As for singing, the best master of four I have, more or less, practised with was Nathan, Author of the Hebrew Melodies; he retained certain traditional Jewish methods of developing the voice.[1]

Australian Resurgence

Nathan claimed to have undertaken some mysterious services for the royal family, but the Whig government under Lord Melbourne refused payment to him, leading to his financial embarrassment. He emigrated to Australia in 1841 where he became a leader of local musical life, acting as music adviser both to the synagogue and to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Sydney. He gave first or early performances in Australia of many of the works of Mozart and Beethoven. On 3 May 1847 his Don John of Austria, the first opera to be written, composed and produced in Australia, was performed at the Victoria Theatre, Sydney.[2] He was also the first to research and transcribe indigenous Australian music.

Death and descendants

Nathan's extraordinary life ended with an extraordinary death. The London Jewish Chronicle of 25 March 1864 reports from Sydney:

Mr. Nathan was a passenger by No. 2 tramway car […] [he] alighted from the car at the southern end, but before he got clear of the rails the car moved onwards […] he was thus whirled round by the sudden motion of the carriage and his body was brought under the front wheel.

The horse-drawn tram was the first in Sydney: Nathan was Australia's (indeed the southern hemisphere's) first tram fatality.

He was buried in Sydney; his tomb is at Camperdown Cemetery.

Many of Nathan's descendants became leading Australian citizens. His son Henry is credited by some with the composition of the unofficial Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda. Contemporary descendants include the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras and his brother Malcolm.


Nathan's excesses and eccentricities, together with his second-rate musical abilities, make it easy to dismiss him as a freak or an irrelevance. Doubtless, were it not for his association with Byron, he would be completely ignored. But the Hebrew Melodies must rank as a real achievement; Nathan's music for them was in print in England at least until the 1850s and was known across Europe.

Moreover, Nathan can claim some credit as the "onlie begetter" of Byron's texts. These not only in themselves diffused a spirit of philosemitism in cultured circles (indeed they became perhaps Byron's most genuinely popular work); but they were used as the basis for settings by many other composers in the nineteenth century, both Jewish (Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Joachim) and gentile (Schumann, Loewe, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and others).

Nathan's writings on music had little direct influence, small sales, and received no serious reviews in the press. His style and vanity are comical, and his often striking insights on Jewish music are outnumbered by instances of ignorance and error. And yet, in isolation, he struck upon and highlighted a theme which was at the time a major concern of the Jewish intellectual movement in Germany; the delineation and promotion of a genuine Jewish culture, that could demonstrate the Jews as a Herderian Volk in their own right. The same spirit seems to have motivated his pioneering work with the music of the indigenous Australians.

Finally, Nathan's indomitable refusal to admit defeat in life in exile — he undoubtedly paralleled himself with his hero Byron — has enabled him, from his concertising and writings on Aboriginal music, to be justly remembered by antipodean musicologists as "the father of Australian music".


Peter Sculthorpe wrote an orchestral piece in 1988 called "At the Grave of Isaac Nathan".[3]


Portrait of Isaac Nathan held by the National Library of Australia.


  1. See: 1) Herbert Everith Greene, "Browning's Knowledge of Music", PLMA, 62 (1947), 1098. Also: 'How Robert Browning found his Feet'
  2. Isaac Nathan, Byron, and Don John of Austria, p.14. Longer version of programme note for the Sydney Symphony performances October 2007, at [1]
  3. Chronological List of Works by Peter Sculthorpe.


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