Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isaac Nathan (1790–1864)

by Catherine Mackerras

This article was published:

Isaac Nathan (1790-1864), musician, was born in Canterbury, England, the eldest son of the Cantor Menehem Mona, a Polish refugee language master, who believed himself to be the son of Stanislaus II, last king of Poland. Isaac was so musically precocious that in 1809 his father apprenticed him to the famous London maestro Domenico Corri to learn singing and composition. In 1812 he eloped with a pupil, Rosetta Worthington, a minor novelist and the only child of an Irish army officer. In 1814 he persuaded Lord Byron to write a series of poems on Hebrew subjects, which he set to adaptations, made by himself, of ancient Jewish chants. Hebrew Melodies was highly successful, but Byron's flight from England in 1816 and the death of Nathan's pupil, Princess Charlotte, to whom he had dedicated Hebrew Melodies, deprived him of aristocratic patronage. In his ensuing financial difficulties he composed operettas such as Sweethearts and Wives; in 1823 he published in London An Essay on the History and Theory of Music and on the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice, subsequently called Musurgia Vocalis, which achieved a European reputation.

In 1824 his wife died, leaving two sons and four daughters, and in 1826 he married Henrietta Buckley. Under the stress of supporting his large family Nathan had apparently acted as secret agent for George IV, whose musical librarian he was; in 1837 William IV sent him on a mysterious mission, the nature of which remains unknown. But Queen Victoria's first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, whose wife had been Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Nathan's early patrons, refused to pay him the £2000 he claimed. He was financially ruined and the whole family left for Australia.

Nathan reached Sydney in April 1841 and immediately opened an academy of singing; he became choirmaster of St Mary's Cathedral and organized the largest concert of sacred music yet heard in the colony. He composed a 'solemn ode' Australia the Wide and Free for the inaugural dinner of Sydney's first Municipal Council (1842) and two 'choral odes', Long Live Victoria and Hail, Star of the South, for subsequent festivities. Henceforth he constituted himself musical laureate to the colony, celebrating the fifty-eighth anniversary of the founding of Sydney with Currency Lasses (1846), mourning the supposed death of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt with Leichhardt's Grave, and rejoicing in his return with The Greeting Home Again. He composed a setting of the Lord's Prayer for Bishop William Grant Broughton and sent his last composition A Song to Freedom (1863) as a gift to the Queen.

In May 1847 Nathan's romantic Don John of Austria, the first opera to be wholly composed and produced in Australia, was performed at the Victoria Theatre; it is one of his few manuscripts to survive. In 1849 he published, simultaneously in London and Sydney, his strange miscellany the The Southern Euphrosyne. Its most interesting sections are devoted to the Aboriginals and their music, in transcribing which Nathan made pioneer experiments; the best known is Koorinda Braia (1842). Unfortunately, in his subsequent series of Australian Melodies he treated the native chants as Victorian ballads.

Nathan built Byron Lodge, a large house in Randwick. On 15 January 1864 he was killed while alighting from a city horse-tram. His second wife, three of whose six children had been born in Australia, died in 1898. His eldest son, Charles, an honorary F.R.C.S., was senior surgeon to the Sydney Infirmary and a pioneer in anaesthetics.

Isaac Nathan's influence on Australian musical history is hard to assess. His own music was of little worth but he probably contributed to the prevailing pseudo-Byronic and Romantic tone of Sydney's artistic life. He was certainly the first musician with a European reputation to settle in Australia, and the first to attempt a serious study of Aboriginal music. A portrait of Isaac Nathan, aged 25, is in the possession of the family of the late V. V. Nathan.

Select Bibliography

  • C. H. Bertie, Isaac Nathan, Australia's First Composer (Syd, 1922)
  • O. S. Phillips, Isaac Nathan, Friend of Byron (Lond, 1940)
  • F. Kelsey, ‘Voice-Training’, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol 9 (Lond, 1954), pp 43-66
  • F. Blume (ed), Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel, 1962)
  • C. B. Mackerras, The Hebrew Melodist (Syd, 1963).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Catherine Mackerras, 'Nathan, Isaac (1790–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Isaac Nathan, c.1820

Isaac Nathan, c.1820

National Library of Australia, 2292675

Life Summary [details]


Canterbury, Kent, England


15 January, 1864 (aged ~ 74)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

tram accident

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