Isaac Nathan- Father of Australian Music

Known as the “Father of the Australian Music”, Isaac Nathan was had an eventful life and career. He was a journalist, an English composer, a self-publicist and of course a musicologist.

Isaac Nathan Australia's First Composer
Isaac Nathan Australia’s First Composer

Early years of Isaac Nathan

Born in or around 1791, Isaac took birth in Canterbury, an English city of Poland. He was born to a Jewish cantor, called hazzan was known by the name, Menahem Monash Polack. His wife Mary Goldsmid, was also Jewish and lived from 1779 to 1842.

While Isaac was young, his parents thought that he will continue the career of his father. Accordingly, he was admitted to the school of Solomon Lyon in Cambridge. But later on, discovering he preferred learning music, he was enrolled as a student under publisher Domenico Corri.

It is also said that Isaac had five years of voice classes from his mentor who himself had studied under Nicola Porpora.

In the year 1813, Isaac went to Lord Byron for the thought of publishing settings of tunes from the synagogue usage. Permission from the authority was provided and the results are known by the Hebrew Melodies in today’s world. The settings provided by Nathan was available for most of the century later.

Hebrew Melodies Cover by Isaac Nathan
Hebrew Melodies Cover by Isaac Nathan

The career of Isaac Nathan

A few of the Hebrew Melodies of Nathan were provided to the ancient service of the Temple of Jerusalem. The synagogue service adopted many of the European folk tunes as time moved ahead.

This absorption was the first attempt to change the traditional music of synagogue which was set by Nathan. However, Nathan was well versed the tunes and had no trouble when the changes have begun to reflect.

To make his sales of tunes effective, he had help from the well-known Jewish Singer John Braham. Placing the name of the established singer on his cover pages pushed the sales as expected. Although Braham made no contribution in the making of the Melodies, he did share the profit earned from them.

Although there is no proof yet Nathan claims that he was appointed as a singer teacher to Princess Charlotte, Princess Royal and also the music librarian of Prince Regent who later became King George IV.

Nathan was no doubt made name and money from his melodies which he dedicated to the Princess by her permission.

Isaac Nathan's Painting
Isaac Nathan’s Painting

Works of Isaac Nathan

Nathan wrote on music and boxing for the popular press in London frequently. He also wrote comic operas for the stage of London and he wrote at a pace that four of them were out in 1823 and 1833.

He had his copyrights on the Hebrew Melodies which were a source of income for him. But he later sold it to his sister.

He gave another attempt at publishing business by establishing it with his brother Barnett Nathan. In 1823, Isaac published on the history of music which was dedicated to King George IV. The history mentioned about Jewish music holding importance for a person to understand the Bible and also the Jewish traditions.

He was also a music teacher to great English Poet Robert Browning while he was young. Even Robert confirms the same and gave Isaac credit of one of his best teacher’s and that he developed a voice for Jewish methods under him.

The fall of Nathan

Nathan’s teacher Byron left said goodbye to London in 1816 and kept no contact with him either. Also, his Princess student, Charlotte died while she was giving birth to her child. With this incident, Nathan lost two of his pillars of strength.

Nathan was married to her first wife which was more of a runaway wedding. But she died shortly after their marriage and he remarried later. Both of his wives were Christian.

As a fact about Nathan, he had a temper. This accounts for his duel for the honour of Lady Caroline Lamb and once again for an attack after he thought when an Irish nobleman accused him quarrying with one of his female company.

Nathan had a connection with Lady Caroline. He wrote a poem for her in his Recollections of Lord Bryon and she was also the godmother to one his children.

Nathan revives in Australia

It is said that Isaac had been busy serving the Royal Family mysteriously. However, under the command of Lord Melbourne, husband of Lady Caroline Lamb refused him any payments.

Ashamed by the incident, Nathan moved to Australia with his family in April 1841. He became the head of the local music life there. He was acting as the music adviser to the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the synagogue in Sydney.

Isaac Nathan
Isaac Nathan

His early performances in Australia were based on works of Mozart and Beethoven. His first opera in Sydney was performed at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 3rd May 1847. It was his first opera which was written, composed and produced in the country and is known by the name Don John of Australia.

He did set the lyrics set by poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop and was the first person to transcribe Australian music.

Death of Isaac Nathan

Isaac Nathan died in Sydney after meeting an accident from a horse-drawn tram. He was buried in Sydney and his tomb is located at the Camperdown Cemetery.

Many leading Australian citizens were Nathan’s descendants. Later descendants include three brothers –psephologist Malcolm Mackerras, conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, the headmaster of Sydney Grammar School Alastair Mackerras – and their nephew, the conductor Alexander Briger.