From Australia’s Jewish past: Isaac Nathan – the first European musician of repute to settle in Australia

April 26, 2022 by Features Desk
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Isaac was born on 24 January 1790 in Canterbury, England, the eldest son of Cantor Menehem Mona, a Polish refugee language master, who believed himself to be the son of Stanislaus II, last king of Poland.

Isaac Nathan

Isaac was so musically talented that, at the age of 19, 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 Isaac set to adaptations, made by himself, of ancient Jewish chants – known as Hebrew Melodies – were highly successful.  Unfortunately, with Lord Byron’s flight from England in 1816 and the death of Isaac’s pupil, Princess Charlotte, to whom he had dedicated Hebrew Melodies, he was deprived of aristocratic patronage.

By this time, he was ensuing financial difficulties but still managed to compose operettas such as Sweethearts and Wives, and published in 1823 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 was well received in Europe.  Isaac was never idle and continually wrote songs, comic operas, burlettas, and texts on singing.

His music touched on the ancient, patriotic and biblical themes demanded by the Romantic tastes of the day. He worked within the harmonic and rhythmic conventions of the time, but in some of his compositions retained Jewish liturgical melodies.

Sadly, in 1824 his wife died, leaving two sons and four daughters, and in 1826 he married Henrietta Buckley.  Isaac had apparently acted as a secret agent to George IV, in the capacity as his musical librarian and, in 1837 William IV sent him on a mysterious mission –  the nature of which remains unknown. However, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, whose wife had been Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Isaac’s early patrons, refused to pay him the £2000 he claimed. He was financially ruined and the whole family left for Australia arriving in Melbourne in April 1841 and immediately giving a concert that featured the Hebrew Melodies.

Within five years, the family moved to Sydney, where his talents won general recognition.  His musical expertise was enlisted when the York Street Synagogue was opened on 2nd April 1844. He established a singing academy, conducted concerts, lectured and trained choirs for the Church of England and was the choirmaster at St Mary’s Cathedral.

Isaac’s most noteworthy claim to Australian fame is that he became the first European to experiment with arranging Aboriginal music.  He was known as the first person to write down the Aboriginal call of ‘cooee’ in its many variants, and included the Aboriginal chant Koorinda Braia in one of the concerts he gave at Sydney Grammar School.

He published his series of ‘Aboriginal Melodies’, a collection of about half a dozen indigenous chants arranged into Western musical notations, in Sydney in the 1840s. This work does not seem to have been much appreciated at the time, when anti-Aboriginal sentiment was still quite high. Today, however, his efforts may be viewed in a much more positive light, perhaps as an early example of a musical ‘Acknowledgement of Country.’

He organised musical performances, and composed the first opera written and produced in Australia – Don Juan of Austria in 1847.  Jacob Levi Montefiore provided the libretto.

Another composition was a ‘solemn ode’ – Australia the Wide and Free for Sydney’s first Municipal Council inaugural dinner in 1842 as well as two ‘choral odes’ – Long Live Victoria and Hail, Star of the South – for subsequent festivities.

Interestingly, he constituted himself to be the musical laureate to the colony, celebrating the fifty-eighth anniversary of the founding of Sydney with Currency Lasses in 1846, commemorating the supposed death of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt with Leichhardt’s Grave, and then rejoicing in his return with The Greeting Home Again. He composed a setting of the Lord’s Prayer for Bishop William Grant Broughton (Archdeacon of New South Wales).

In 1863 Isaac sent his last composition A Song to Freedom as a gift to Queen Victoria, but unfortunately it did not reach her before he passed away in a most tragic accident.  He became the first victim of an Australian city horse-tram accident and was killed on 15 January 1864 after alighting from Sydney’s first horse-drawn tram.  Just as he was about to step from the carriage, he fell and was drawn beneath the wheels, sustaining fatal injuries.

Isaac built a large house in Randwick known as Byron Lodge where the family, including 12 children lived until 1862 when they moved in to the city.   His second wife, three of whose six children had been born in Australia, died in 1898.  His eldest son, Charles, was senior surgeon to the Sydney Infirmary and a pioneer in anaesthetics.

Although he remained a Jew, his children had him buried privately in the churchyard of St Stephen’s in Camperdown, where his modest gravestone can be viewed today.  Interestingly, in the same graveyard is buried the tragic bride who was jilted on her wedding day.  Charles Dickens is thought to have modelled Miss Haversham on this unfortunate lady, in his novel, Great Expectations.

Isaac’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.

Anecdote: Perhaps not commonly known is that Nathan had a well-developed sense of humour.  On being asked to stand for Parliament in 1856, he wrote to the Herald:

‘1st, I have neither the ambition to become a member nor the inclination to incur the expense of its attainment; 2nd, my political notions are so firmly fixed and determined that I would not have any man indulge the crotchet in his head that I would pledge myself to any particular party… I bar every attempt to force me into a promise to perform a solo or take part in canon, fugue or chorus of any composition not in unison with my theatrical notions of harmony and time.’

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.

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