Byron's "Rabbi": Isaac Nathan and the Hebrew Melodies

By Leffler, Joy Silver | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Byron's "Rabbi": Isaac Nathan and the Hebrew Melodies


Leffler, Joy Silver, Midstream


In London, in the fall of 1814, a young, former rabbinical student named Isaac Nathan approached the most famous poet and roue of his generation with an intriguing proposal. Nathan had been touring the county/side's synagogues, searching for the roots of Jewish temple music in England. After discovering a profusion of traditional Hebrew melodies, he hoped to persuade Lord Byron to provide lyrics for the music. Byron, however, hesitated to get involved in the project until Douglas Kinnaird, his friend and banker, convinced him that the collaboration might prove worthwhile. Perhaps Byron finally agreed to participate because he felt an affinity for the suffering of the Hebrew people, or he simply admired the stories of the Old Testament. But most likely he was amazed to find in Nathan a kindred spirit.

Nathan's own touch of Byronic rebelliousness had surfaced when, in 1810, he defied his family's expectations by deciding to abandon the rabbinate, just as he was about to be ordained. His teacher at the time was Solomon Lyon, the noted headmaster of the first Jewish boarding school at Cambridge. Although Jews were then denied permission to obtain a degree at the university (a policy that continued until 1856),(1) Lyon arranged for Nathan to enroll in several classes. But Nathan cast his studies aside because of his secret desire to perform on the London stage. As his resolve to become a singer strengthened, he realized he could no longer delay broaching the subject of a secular career to his father -- an esteemed chazzan in Canterbury.(2) But to Nathan's surprise, his father consented to support him financially and help arrange for an apprenticeship as a singer and composer with the great Italian teacher, Domenico Corri.

The predicament Nathan faced in the Romantic era, reconciling his choice of a profession with the religious vocation of his ancestors, ironically prefigured the similar dilemma of another cantor's son who, a century later in America, would also choose to lead a secular life. In the early 1900s, the latter rose to become the iconic jazz singer, Al Jolson. But long before this, Nathan (who had turned to composing because his voice was too thin)(3) had pinned his hopes on Byron rather than "Broadway."

When the poet invited Nathan to dinner in 1814, Nathan was eager to impress his host with the sacred beauty of the Hebrew melodies. Evidently, he succeeded -- Byron soon began supplying his own lyrics to the authentic tunes that Nathan had culled from the synagogue services. Though Nathan must have known that, as a consequence of the collaboration, secular influences were bound to commingle with the religious significance of the music, he generally aimed to preserve the distinctive Jewish heritage of the songs in his musical arrangements. Even Byron declared to his then fiancee, Annabella Milbanke, that he was excited about writing the "words for a musical composer who is going to publish the real old undisputed Hebrew melodies which are beautiful & to which David and the prophets actually sang the `songs of Zion' -- & I have done nine or ten -- on the sacred model -- partly from Job &c. [sic] & partly my own imagination."(4)

The spirit of the music seemed to engulf Byron, sometimes moving him to inject his unique personality into the liturgical chants. Once, in a creative frenzy, he burst forth with the lyric, "My Soul is Dark," based on a traditional Passover melody selected by Nathan.(5) Byron was perhaps driven by an affinity for the poem's Hebrew protagonist, King Saul, an anguished soul evoking Byron's poetic gallery of brooding heroes. But Byron did not merely "[put] on `Jewishness'"; he sensitively portrayed Saul's desperate need to achieve catharsis through the sweet strains of David's harp.(6) In fact, Byron's identification with the heroic Jewish spirit of Saul and David was so potent that antisemitic reviews of the lyrics accused Byron of denigrating Christianity, dubbing him the "poet laureate of the synagogue. …

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