Biography: Isaac Nathan


Isaac Nathan is one of the more interesting neglected figures of the Regency period. He was a practicing Jew whose wife Rosetta had converted—an unusual act for a British gentile. Nathan refused to assimilate in the same way that most of his contemporaries in the world of music and art had done. Classically trained by Domenico Corri, who was the student of legendary vocal teacher Nicola Porpora, Nathan wrote a master text on vocal art and became music librarian to George IV.

In spring 1813 Lady Caroline met Nathan and may have encouraged him in his plan to take advantage of the popularity of national songs, epitomized in Moore’s Irish Melodies. Nathan advertised that he was working on A Selection of Hebrew Melodies but needed a lyricist. Sir Walter Scott had turned him down.

In spring of 1814, Lady Caroline wrote a duet that Nathan set to music and performed at a party in honor of her brother Willy’s engagement. In mid-June, whether on his own initiative or at the suggestion of Lady Caroline, Nathan asked Byron to supply the lyrics. Byron said no at first, but after his friend, Douglas Kinnaird, intervened, he promised to write a few songs, partly to impress his fiancée, the religious and proper Annabella Milbanke. By October he had done nine or ten, apparently enjoying the collaboration.

Nathan had gained recognition as the music teacher for Princess Charlotte, to whom his Hebrew Melodies (1815-1816) were eventually dedicated. Lady Caroline, who played the harpsichord and harp, began a collaboration of her own with Nathan, who composed music “impromptu” for some of her poems.

Two songs were printed with music in Lady Caroline’s first novel, Glenarvon (1816). She undoubtedly felt that Nathan’s music was a selling point for the novel, because the second and final volume of Byron and Nathan’s Hebrew Melodies (1816) was selling well and Byron’s well-publicized departure from England made sales even better. Nathan began selling Caroline’s songs as sheet music. In 1822 Caroline and William agreed to become godparents to Isaac Nathan’s newest child, Louisa Caroline Nathan. Lady Caroline’s third novel, Ada Reis, also included a song printed with the music by Isaac Nathan.

When Nathan’s wife Rosetta died in childbirth in January 1824, Nathan was laid low, and he asked Lady Caroline to versify some lines he had written in Hebrew as he struggled to accept his loss. He gave her a literal translation, and she wrote a three-stanza poem beginning, “As the flower early gathered, while fresh in its bloom. . . .”

In May of 1824, just as news of Byron’s death in Greece reached London, the composer J. Close pirated one of Lady Caroline’s songs and attributed it the actress Mrs. Jordan, who was said to have written it on her deathbed. Nathan was upset because the poem had been in his possession for a long time. Anxious to preserve his relationship with his patroness, he persuaded her to write him a letter expressly giving him exclusive rights to the lyrics from her novels. He published a facsimile of this letter after her death, along with specific advertising information about the ten or more songs of Lady Caroline’s he was still selling in 1828.

After Lady Caroline died Nathan published a defense of her character (and Byron’s) titled Fugitive Pieces just after she died, reproducing her poetry right along with Byron’s in a single volume. He told how he had composed music “impromptu” for Byron’s poems; and how he had done the same for hers. He also printed some rather unflattering lines about William and the Lambs, making it seem that they had mistreated Caroline.

Through the 1830s he continued to set and publish her lyrics as sheet music and advertised them alongside Byron’s. Then, like Byron, Nathan went into exile. He had apparently been engaged in some little espionage and a lot of expense on behalf of the Royal Family—or so he asserted when he appealed to the government for relief of his debts in 1839. He was denied and emigrated to Australia. The Prime Minister was William Lamb, now Lord Melbourne.

Lady Caroline Lamb lyrics set to music by Isaac Nathan:

  • After Many a Well Fought Day.  London 1820-1837? 
  • Amidst the Flowers Rich and Gay.  London 182--.
  • Farewell.  London 1816. 
  • Let the harp be mute forever.  London 1829? 
  • My Heart's Fit To Break.  London 181-. 
  • The Kiss that's on thy lip impress'd.  London 182-. 
  • Sing Not For others, but for me.  London 1823. 
  • Sir Henry De Vaux.  London 1823. 
  • Thou Would'st Not Do What I have Done.  London 1820-1837? 
  • Waters of Elle (to a trad. French Melody).  London 1816. 
  • Weep for what thou'st lost, Love.  London 1823. 
  • Would I had seen thee dead and cold.  London 18--. 

Those interested in a recording of Isaac Nathan’s and Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies will find it available at the following site:

Romantic-Era Songs Web-Site