Nathan, Isaac

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NATHAN, ISAAC (1790?–1864), composer, singer, and writer. Nathan was born in Canterbury, England, and his father was probably the local ḥazzan. He studied with Solomon Lyon at Cambridge to enter the rabbinate, but in about 1810 he went to London and began a career as singer, composer, and music teacher. From Domenico Corri he learned the classical tradition of Italian vocal culture, stemming from Corri's master, Porpora; Nathan's Musurgia Vocalis (18362) is one of the few remaining written documentations of this method. In London he became friendly with Lord *Byron, whose Hebrew Melodies were written at Nathan's request and set by him to music. In the first editions of this work (from 1815 onward), which achieved great popularity, the name of John *Braham was featured on the title page as composer, in addition to that of Nathan, but Braham contributed nothing to the work except his prestige. After a financial setback, caused mainly by debts incurred while on a secret mission on behalf of King William iv, Nathan immigrated to Australia in 1841 and settled in Sydney as Australia's first resident professional composer. There he organized musical performances, published a magazine entitled The Southern Euphrosyne, and composed the first opera written and produced in Australia, Don Juan of Austria (1847). Nathan died in Sydney from injuries received while stepping off (or being run over by) a tram. His great-granddaughter Catherine Mackerras wrote his most informed biography, and her son was the conductor Charles Mackerras. His great-nephew was the pianist Harold Samuel.

Nathan's works include various operas and songs. Several traditional Jewish melodies are found in his Musurgia Vocalis. For some of the Hebrew Melodies he also used some traditional tunes, but, except for *Ma'oz Ẓur (set to Byron's "On Jordan's Banks"), they are quite transformed by his superficial compositional initiative. In certain of the songs published in Australia, he reworked aboriginal melodies. His grandson, Harry Alfred Nathan, has been proposed as the composer of the popular Australian song "Waltzing Matilda," but the claim is a matter of dispute.


E. Foreman, The Porpora Tradition (1968); C. Mackerras, Hebrew Melodist: A Life of Isaac Nathan (1963); O.S. Phillips, Isaac Nathan, Friend of Byron (1940); C.H. Bertie, Isaac Nathan, Australia's First Composer (1922); R. Covell, Australia's Music (1967), 13–15, 59, 68–69; E.R. Dibdin, in: Music and Letters, 22 (1941), 85.

[Bathja Bayer]