Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nathan, Isaac
NATHAN, ISAAC (1791?–1864), musical composer, teacher of singing, and author, was born at Canterbury, Kent, about 1791, of Jewish parents. Being by them intended for the Hebrew priesthood, he was sent early in life to Cambridge to study Hebrew, German, and Chaldean, in all of which he made rapid progress, with one Lyon, a teacher of Hebrew in the university; but in his leisure he diligently practised the violin, and showed such uncommon aptitude for music that his parents were persuaded to give their consent to his abandoning the study of theology for that of music. With this object, Nathan was taken away from Cambridge and articled in London to Domenico Corri (1746–1825), the Italian composer and teacher. Under Corri's guidance Nathan advanced rapidly. Eight months after the apprenticeship began the young composer wrote and published his first song, ‘Infant Love.’ There followed in quick succession more works in the same style, the best of which was ‘The Sorrows of Absence.’
About 1812 Nathan was introduced by Douglas Kinnaird [q. v.] to Lord Byron, and thus commenced a friendship which was only dissolved by the death of the poet. At Kinnaird's suggestion Byron wrote the ‘Hebrew Melodies’ for Nathan to set to music, and Nathan subsequently bought the copyright of the work. He intended to publish the ‘Melodies’ by subscription, and Braham, on putting his name down for two copies, suggested that he should aid in their arrangement, and sing them in public. Accordingly the title-page of the first edition, published in 1815, stated that the music was newly arranged, harmonised, and revised by I. Nathan and J. Braham. But Braham's engagements did not allow him to share actively in the undertaking, and in later editions his name was withdrawn (cf. Pref. to 1829 ed.). The melodies were mainly ‘a selection from the favourite airs sung in the religious ceremonies of the Jews’ (cf. Nathan's ‘Fugitive Pieces,’ Pref. p. ix, ed. 1829 p. 144; cf. advertisement by Byron in his collected works, London, 1821). Lady Caroline Lamb [q. v.] was also among Nathan's friends, and wrote verses for him to set to music. In 1829 he published ‘Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron … together with his Lordship's Autograph; also some original Poetry, Letters, and Recollections of Lady Caroline Lamb.’ Despite Nathan's claim to long intimacy with Byron, Moore avoids mention of him in his ‘Life’ of the poet. A note affixed to the earlier editions of Byron's works stated that the poet never ‘alludes to his share in the melodies with complacency, and that Mr. Moore, having on one occasion rallied him a little on the manner in which some of them had been set to music, received the reply, “Sunburn Nathan! Why do you always twit me with his Ebrew nasalities? Have I not already told you it was all Kinnaird's doing and my own exquisite facility of temper?”’ (see Notes and Queries, 6th ser. 1884, ix. 71). Nathan's ‘Fugitive Pieces’ gave him a wide reputation, but the success of the volume was not sufficient to keep him out of financial difficulties. He contracted a large number of debts, was compelled to quit London, and for a time lived in retirement in the west of England and in Wales. On returning to London he was advised to appear on the stage in an attempt to satisfy his creditors. He accordingly made his début in the part of Henry Bertram in Bishop's opera, ‘Guy Mannering,’ at Covent Garden about 1816. His voice was, however, too small in compass and strength to admit of this being an entirely successful experiment, though his method was declared by competent judges to have been decidedly good. As his next resource he essayed opera writing, and several operas, pantomimes, and melodramas of his composition were produced at Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres, one or two of which obtained a certain amount of favour. Among them may be mentioned ‘Sweethearts and Wives,’ a comedy with music by Nathan and libretto by James Kenney [q. v.], which ran for upwards of fifty nights after its production at the Haymarket Theatre on 7 July 1823. It included two of Nathan's most popular songs, ‘Why are you wandering here?’ and ‘I'll not be a maiden forsaken.’ Nathan's comic opera, ‘The Alcaid, or the Secrets of Office,’ the words also by Kenney, was produced at the Haymarket on 10 Aug. 1824. Nathan's musical farce, ‘The Illustrious Stranger, or Married and Buried,’ the words written for Liston by Kenney, was first given at Drury Lane in October 1827 (see Cat. Sacred Harmonic Soc. Library, 1872, p. 95).
In 1823 Nathan published ‘Musurgia Vocalis: an Essay on the History and Theory of Music, and on the Qualities, Capabilities, and Management of the Human Voice, with an Appendix on Hebrew Music’ (London, 4to), which he dedicated to George IV. The issue of an enlarged edition was begun in 1836, but of this only the first volume seems to have appeared. Contemporary critics considered the work excellent (see Monthly Review, June 1823; Quart. Mus. Rev. vol. xix.; Révue Encyclopédique, p. 156, October 1823; La Belle Assemblée, July 1823). Nathan also gave to the world a ‘Life of Mme. Malibran de Beriot, interspersed with original Anecdotes and critical Remarks on her Musical Powers’ (1st and 3rd ed. London, 1836, 12mo). He was appointed musical historian to George IV, and instructor in music to the Princess Charlotte of Wales.
In 1841 Nathan emigrated to Australia, because, it is said, of his failure to obtain from Lord Melbourne's ministry recognition of a claim for 2,326l. on account, he asserted, of work done and money expended in the service of the crown. The precise nature of the work is not stated by Nathan, but his treatment at the hands of the ‘Melbournitish Ministry’ weighed heavily upon him. The odd 326l. was paid him, but the remaining sum was disallowed (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. ix 355). The matter is fully dealt with by Nathan in ‘The Southern Euphrosyne,’ pp. 161–7, though again the precise nature of the business is omitted. He first took up his abode in Sydney at 105 Hunter Street, but later removed to Randwick, a suburb of that city; and there, and indeed in the entire colony, he did a great deal to benefit church music and choral societies. In 1846 he published simultaneously in Sydney and in London ‘The Southern Euphrosyne and Australian Miscellany, containing Oriental Moral Tales, original Anecdotes, Poetry, and Music; an historical Sketch with Examples of the Native Aboriginal Melodies put into modern Rhythm, and harmonised as Solos, Quartets, &c., together with several other vocal Pieces arranged to a Pianoforte Accompaniment by the Editor and sole Proprietor, Isaac Nathan.’ He also frequently lectured in Sydney on the theory and practice of music. The first, second, and third of a series of lectures delivered at Sydney Proprietary College were published in that city in 1846.
While resident at Randwick, where he named his house after Byron, he took great interest in the Asylum for Destitute Children, for whose benefit he arranged in 1859 a monster concert at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, Sydney. He subsequently went to live at 442 Pitt Street. He was killed in Pitt Street, ‘in descending from a tramcar,’ on 15 Jan. 1864. He was in his seventy-fourth year. His last composition was a piece entitled ‘A Song of Freedom,’ a copy of which was sent, through Sir John Young, to the Queen. Nathan's remains were interred on 17 Jan. 1864 in the cemetery at Camperdown (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jan. 1864). He was twice married, and left a number of children. One son, Charles, was a F.R.C.S., enjoyed a wide reputation as a surgeon, and died in September 1872. Another son, Robert, was an officer in the New South Wales regular artillery, and aide-de-camp to the governor, Lord Augustus Loftus.
In the music catalogue of the British Museum no less than twelve pages are devoted to Nathan's compositions and literary works, all of which savour strongly of the dilettante. Of those not hitherto mentioned the best are: 1. A national song, ‘God save the Regent,’ poem by J. J. Stockdale (London, fol. 1818). 2. ‘Long live our Monarch,’ for solo, chorus, and orchestra (London, fol. 1830).[Authorities cited above; also Notes and Queries, 6th ser. viii. 494, ix. 71, 137, 178, 197, 355; Cat. Anglo-Jewish Hist. Exhib.; Letters from Byron to Moore, 22 Feb. 1815; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit. 1870, Philadelphia; Georgian Era, iv. 281; Heaton's Australian Dict. of Dates, 1879, p. 150; Jewish Chronicle, 25 March 1864.]