Musings / Lord Byron's Matzot

If Byron was ready to be his Oscar Hammerstein II, Isaac Nathan would, he generously implied, be prepared to be his Richard Rodgers.

Lady Caroline Lamb described Lord Byron as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." As one of his many lovers she had every reason to make this judgment. But he richly lived up to her description. The Regency age was as tolerant an era as England has known, but not permissive enough to turn a blind eye at the myriad scandals attached to Byron's name. Having chalked up to his record acts of serial adultery, incest, pederasty, sodomy and violence, Byron felt compelled to leave England in 1816 - as it turned out, forever. On the eve of his departure, he was the grateful recipient of an unusual gift. Byron's letters were renowned for their wit and erudition; the thank-you letter he sent on this occasion merits quoting at length:

"The unleavened bread shall certainly accompany me in my pilgrimage; and with a full reliance on their efficacy, the Motsas shall be to me a charm against the destroying Angel wherever I may sojourn; his serene highness will, I hope, be polite enough to keep at a desirable distance from my person, without the necessity of my smearing my door posts or upper lintels with the blood of any animal."

I am indebted to my friend John Graham for introducing me to Isaac Nathan, the colorful character who sent Byron the "holy biscuits commonly called unleavened bread." Nathan was born in 1792 in the cathedral city of Canterbury, where his father was the cantor of the local synagogue. Claiming to be the son of Stanislaus II, the last king of Poland, the elder Nathan seems not to have been your typical cantor. Whether he also possessed a particular trait that tradition commonly ascribes to cantors, I have not been able to establish. I have known cantors with PhDs, but not enough of them to rebut the time-hallowed canard that cantors tend to be - how to put it kindly? - intellectually challenged. They distinguish themselves, you might say, more in the upper register than in the upper story. You would never confuse one of those cantorial jamborees that have become so popular a feature of Israeli concert halls for the annual congress of Mensa.

Whether or not sons of cantors inherit the apocryphal clothheadedness of their fathers I do not know, but the cantorial DNA does seem to contain a gene for musical aptitude. Like many cantors' sons - Al Jolson and Harold Arlen spring immediately to mind - Isaac Nathan, from an early age, demonstrated outstanding musical gifts. What he also inherited in abundance from his putatively royal father was chutzpah.

The friendship with Byron that gave rise to the gift of matzot started in 1814, when Nathan wrote to the already-famous poet - whom he had never met - suggesting a collaboration. If Byron was ready to be his Oscar Hammerstein II, Nathan would, he generously implied, be prepared to be his Richard Rodgers. He would supply the music and Byron would write the lyrics. "I have with great trouble," wrote Nathan, "selected a considerable number of very beautiful Hebrew melodies of undoubted antiquity, some of which are proved to have been sung by the Jews before the destruction of the Temple."

It is probably fortunate that Byron did not ask for the proffered proof of the antiquity of the melodies but, surprisingly, he eagerly agreed to a partnership. He buckled down to produce a collection of songs entitled "Hebrew Melodies" to be set to Nathan's music. The 30-odd poems he wrote are far from peripheral to Byron's work. The collection contains some of the most anthologized of his poems, such as the beautifully lyrical "She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night." If you lived in the bad old days when schoolchildren were encouraged to learn poetry by heart, the odds are that the first Byron poem you learned and enjoyed was "The Destruction of Sennacherib": "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold." Much as I loved reciting the poem with its almost irresistible galloping rhythm, I had no idea the poem had been set to music and, moreover, that the music was taken from the synagogue liturgy.

Composer of note

The poems in "Hebrew Melodies" have survived, of course, unassisted by the music; of the millions who still read the poems, few would be able to put a melody to the words. But this is not to say that the music was insignificant. Perhaps the story would have been neater had the melodies indeed been forgotten. What happened was different. Byron, with characteristic generosity, assigned the copyright of the poems to Nathan. Nathan enlisted the aid of the famous tenor John Braham, who had started his career as a synagogue chorister. Together they promoted the sale of the book and music of "Hebrew Melodies." Published in April 1815 at the hefty price of one guinea, it nevertheless proved to be a great success and remained popular as late as 1850.

Today the music to "Hebrew Melodies" remains of interest principally to musicologists. But, at least one of the melodies can still be heard in concert halls: Max Bruch's frequently performed "Kol Nidre" is styled "An Adagio on Hebrew Melodies." The first theme is the traditional melody to the "Kol Nidre" prayer that opens the Yom Kippur service. The second is less familiar. It is from the middle section of Isaac Nathan's arrangement of Byron's moving homage to Psalm 137: "O Weep for those that wept by Babel's stream / Whose shrines are desolate, whose land a dream."

"Hebrew Melodies" was the high point of Nathan's career. Nathan never heard from Byron again though the matzot, at least for a few years, kept the Angel of Death away from the poet. But Nathan himself seems to have lived an almost Byronic life. He gambled heavily, eloped twice with pupils, was prosecuted for assaulting an Irish peer, and fought a duel for the honor of Lady Caroline Lamb. He had some musical success, writing comic operas and teaching singing to, among others, Robert Browning.

In one respect, Nathan was consistent. He was almost always in debt. Eventually he resolved to emigrate. In April 1841, he arrived in Sydney. He was the first composer of note to settle in Australia, and from the time of his arrival he plunged into a frenzy of musical activity. If Nathan is a footnote in the history of English music, his name is still honored in Australia where he has been called the father of Australian music. The distinguished Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras is a direct descendant of Isaac Nathan.

Nathan had long left his ancestral religion behind - he had all his children baptized - but he kept his options open. While acting as the musical director of Sydney's Roman Catholic cathedral, he also acted as musical adviser to the city's new synagogue.

He departed life as spectacularly as he had lived it: He was caught in the wheels of a horse-drawn tram - the pride of the Sydney transport system. Thus the final boring fact about the far-from-boring cantor's son, who inspired some of Byron's finest poetry, is that he became the first fatal tram victim in the southern hemisphere.