The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 3/Hebrew Melodies

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For works with similar titles, see Hebrew Melodies.
1397461The Works of Lord Byron — Hebrew MelodiesGeorge Gordon Byron



According to the "Advertisement" prefixed to Murray's First Edition of the Hebrew Melodies, London, 1815 (the date, January, 1815, was appended in 1832), the "poems were written at the request of the author's friend, the Hon. D. Kinnaird, for a selection of Hebrew Melodies, and have been published, with the music, arranged by Mr. Braham and Mr. Nathan."

Byron's engagement to Miss Milbanke took place in September, 1814, and the remainder of the year was passed in London, at his chambers in the Albany. The so-called Hebrew Melodies were, probably, begun in the late autumn of that year, and were certainly finished at Seaham, after his marriage had taken place, in January-February, 1815. It is a natural and pardonable conjecture that Byron took to writing sacred or, at any rate, scriptural verses by way of giving pleasure and doing honour to his future wife, "the girl who gave to song What gold could never buy." They were, so to speak, the first-fruits of a seemlier muse.

It is probable that the greater number of these poems were in MS. before it occurred to Byron's friend and banker, the Honble. Douglas James William Kinnaird (1788-1830), to make him known to Isaac Nathan (i 792-1864), a youthful composer of "musical farces and operatic works," who had been destined by his parents for the Hebrew priesthood, but had broken away, and, after some struggles, succeeded in qualifying himself as a musician.

Byron took a fancy to Nathan, and presented him with the copyright of his "poetical effusions," on the understanding that they were to be set to music and sung in public by John Braham. "Professional occupations" prevented Braham from fulfilling his part of the engagement, but a guinea folio (Part. I.) ("Selections of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, with appropriate symphonies and accompaniments, by I. Braham and I. Nathan, the poetry written expressly for the work by the Right Honourable Lord Byron")—with an ornamental title-page designed by the architect Edward Blore (1789-1879), and dedicated to the Princess Charlotte of Wales—was published in April, 1815. A second part was issued in 1816.

The preface, part of which was reprinted (p. vi.) by Nathan, in his Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron, London, 1829, is not without interest—

"The Hebrew Melodies are a selection from the favourite airs which are still sung in the religious ceremonies of the Jews. Some of these have, in common with all their Sacred airs, been preserved by memory and tradition alone, without the assistance of written characters. Their age and originality, therefore, must be left to conjecture. But the latitude given to the taste and genius of their performers has been the means of engrafting on the original Melodies a certain wildness and pathos, which have at length become the chief characteristics of the sacred songs of the Jews....

"Of the poetry it is necessary to speak, in order thus publicly to acknowledge the kindness with which Lord Byron has condescended to furnish the most valuable part of the work. It has been our endeavour to select such melodies as would best suit the style and sentiment of the poetry."

Moore, for whose benefit the Melodies had been rehearsed, was by no means impressed by their "wildness and pathos," and seems to have twitted Byron on the subject, or, as he puts it (Life, p. 276), to have taken the liberty of "laughing a little at the manner in which some of the Hebrew Melodies had been set to music." The author of Sacred Songs (1814) set to airs by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc., was a critic not to be gainsaid, but from the half-comical petulance with which he "curses" and "sun-burns" (Letters to Moore, February 22, March 8, 1815, Letters, 1899, iii. 179, 183) Nathan, and his "vile Ebrew nasalities," it is evident that Byron winced under Moore's "chaff."

Apart from the merits or demerits of the setting, the title Hebrew Melodies is somewhat misleading. Three love-songs, "She walks in Beauty like the Night," "Oh! snatched away in Beauty's Bloom," and "I saw thee weep," still form part of the collection; and, in Nathan's folio (which does not contain "A spirit passed before me"), two fragments, "It is the hour when from the boughs" and " Francesca walks in the shadow of night," which were afterwards incorporated in Parisina, were included. The Fugitive Pieces, 1829, retain the fragments from Parisina, and add the following hitherto unpublished poems: "I speak not, I trace not," etc., "They say that Hope is Happiness," and the genuine but rejected Hebrew Melody "In the valley of waters we wept on the day."

It is uncertain when Murray's first edition appeared. Byron wrote to Nathan with regard to the copyright in January, 1815 (Letters, 1899, iii. 167), but it is unlikely that the volume was put on the market before Nathan's folio, which was advertised for the first time in the Morning Chronicle, April 6, 1815; and it is possible that the first public announcement of the Hebrew Melodies, as a separate issue, was made in the Courier, June 22, 1815.

The Hebrew Melodies were reviewed in the Christian Observer, August, 1815, vol. xiv. p. 542; in the Analectic Magazine, October, 1815, vol. vi. p. 292; and were noticed by Jeffrey [The Hebrew Melodies, though "obviously inferior" to Lord Byron's other works, "display a skill in versification and a mastery in diction which would have raised an inferior artist to the very summit of distinction"] in the Edinburgh Review, December, 1816, vol. xxvii. p. 291.


The subsequent poems were written at the request of my friend, the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird, for a Selection of Hebrew Melodies, and have been published, with the music, arranged by Mr. Braham and Mr. Nathan. January, 1815.

Lady Wilmot Horton
from a lithograph.