The Father of Australian Music

The Father of Australian Music
Isaac Nathan, c.1820

Dr Brian Wimborne recounts the ups and downs of a musical genius, Isaac Nathan, from ANU Reporter, vol 49, no 2, Winter 2018, pp 62-63

On the afternoon of 15 January 1864, an elderly man travelling on a horse tram was returning to his home at 442 Pitt Street, Sydney. He alighted on the corner of Goulburn and Pitt Streets, but before he could get clear of the vehicle, he fell under it and was crushed to death. Two days later he was buried in Camperdown cemetery.

His contribution to early Australian musical life was monumental.

The unfortunate gentleman became the first person in Australia to die in a tram accident and, if his fame were to have rested solely on that, he would probably have been forgotten long ago. In fact, his reputation rests on his being considered the father of Australian music.

Isaac Nathan was born c.1791 in the English cathedral city of Canterbury to Menehem Mona, a Polish chazzan (cantor) and his English Jewish wife, Mary Goldsmid. As he was expecting to follow a rabbinical career, Isaac was educated by Solomon Lyon in Cambridge but his love of music led him to being apprenticed to Domenico Corri, a London-based maestro, from whom he learnt singing.

In 1812 Nathan eloped with Rosetta Worthington, a novelist and daughter of an Irish army officer. A year later he persuaded his friend Lord Byron to write the words to his composition, Hebrew Melodies. While Nathan’s music has faded into history, Byron’s poems remain among his best loved.

Hebrew Melodies was dedicated to Charlotte, the Princess Royal, to whom Nathan taught singing. Another of his pupils was the young Robert Browning. He was also music librarian to the Prince Regent, who became King George IV.

With Byron’s self-imposed exile in 1816 and the death of Princess Charlotte in the following year, Nathan lost two valuable aristocratic patrons. Faced with financial difficulties, he wrote an operetta, Sweethearts and Wives as well as An essay on the history and theory of music and on the qualities and capabilities and management of the human voice. Neither brought him substantial financial gain.

His impecunious situation was not helped by his gambling on prizefights. He may even have spent time in debtors’ prison. Adding to his woes, his wife died in 1824, leaving two sons and four daughters. Two years later he married Henrietta Buckley in Bristol.

Nathan’s quick temper led to a duel in which he defended the honour of Lady Caroline Lamb who had been godmother to one of his children. Later he appeared in court for assaulting an Irish aristocrat, but was acquitted.

In 1837 he undertook a secret mission on behalf of King William IV; its nature has never been revealed. However, the Whig Government under Prime Minister Lord Melbourne refused to pay Nathan the £2,000 he was owed by the state.

Financially ruined, Nathan and his family migrated to Australia. After giving recitals in Melbourne, he disembarked in Sydney in April 1841.

Soon after arriving, he established a singing academy, was appointed choirmaster at St Mary’s Cathedral and became musical adviser to the Sydney synagogue. On the occasion of the dedication of the organ at St Mary’s, he organised a large concert of sacred music that introduced Sydney audiences to two fugues, one from Mozart’s 12th Mass and the other from Beethoven’s Mass in C.

He continued writing music, including the odes, Australia the Wide and Free, Long Live Victoria and Hail, Star of the South. Other songs he wrote were Currency Lass and Leichhardt’s Grave. At Bishop Broughton’s request, he put the Lord’s Prayer to music.

In 1847 he composed the opera Don John of Austria which was performed on 3 May at Sydney’s Victoria theatre and favourably received by the large audience. It was the first opera to be written in Australia.

Nathan took a special interest in researching and transcribing Aboriginal music, some of which he featured in The Southern Euphrosyne, a musical miscellany. One of his best-known pieces derived from native traditions was Koorinda Braia which was performed at a madrigal concert in May 1842, Nathan described it as a song of rejoicing sung at corroborees. Another was The Aboriginal Father, a Native Song of the Maneroo Tribe.

Remembering his old friend, Lord Byron, he built a large home at Randwick he named Byron Lodge.

Nathan took a special interest in the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children for which he raised money by giving charity concerts.

Unfortunately, most of Nathan’s music has been lost, which makes it difficult to evaluate his significance as a composer. There is no doubt, however, that his contribution to early Australian musical life was monumental and he is rightly considered the father of Australian music.

It is not surprising the late Sir Charles Mackerras, perhaps the country’s most eminent conductor, was a direct descendant of Isaac Nathan.

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