Concert Notes: Byron’s Hebrew Melodies at 200

Last night, I performed five of Lord Byron and Isaac Nathan’s collaborative work of music and poetry, the Hebrew Melodies (1815), with the lovely and talented soprano Catherine Hancock at a private home in New York City. This was the New York premiere of Byron’s songs: there’s no record of the Hebrew Melodies being performed in American nineteenth-century periodicals, and although the musical settings were popular in the early decades of the nineteenth-century, the score was out of print from the 1850s until 1988, when Paul Douglass and Frederick Burwick produced a scholarly edition to coincide with the bicentennial of Byron’s birth. So, though we were working with music that was exactly 200 years old, the material was very new for our listeners. Theodor Adorno once said that the second-generation Romantics were “the locum tenentes of nonexistant great English composers.” But what was the music that was being written and played during English Romanticism? Our concert sought an answer to this question.

First, some history: The Hebrew Melodies were published in 1815, during an unusual and somewhat disquieting stage in Byron’s life.

Byron's orientalist pose
Byron’s orientalist pose

When Byron began to think about the collection, in the fall of 1814, he had just become engaged to the virtuous and devout Annabella Milbanke, and he sought to change his heretofore exotic and Orientalist focus (which we see in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1812, and in the enormously popular Turkish Tales of 1813-14) to something more decorous for his new bride that reflected his Biblical learning and attention to serious subjects like religious freedom, grief, and exile.

But, in a strange and ironical twist, the collection was originally suggested by Byron’s ex-lover (and Annabella’s cousin), Lady Caroline Lamb, who had coined the famous “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” aphorism.

Lady Caroline Lamb - (figurative) orchestrator of the Hebrew Melodies collection, and the reason for the composer's later duel
Lady Caroline Lamb – (figurative) orchestrator of the Hebrew Melodies collection, and the reason for the composer’s later duel

Lady Caroline, who was still reeling from Byron’s rejection, suggested to the poet that he produce a series of new poems based on Old Testament sources with musical scoring by  Isaac Nathan, a young and successful Jewish composer in London. Byron and Nathan agreed to collaborate, and during her “treaclemoon,” Annabella Milbanke (now Byron) helped to produce fair-text copies of the poems for their publication in a musical folio in 1815. The Hebrew Melodies sold out, and pirated editions were produced. The best-known poem from this collection of thirty songs is the often-anthologized lyric “She Walks in Beauty.”

Nathan was two years younger than Byron, making him twenty-five at the time of the collaboration with the famous poet. He had been born in Canterbury, where his father was a cantor at the synagogue. Nathan was brought up to be a musician, and after some years of study at Cambridge, he was apprenticed to a music publisher in London. After the success of the Hebrew Melodies, which were dedicated to the Princess Charlotte, Nathan rose in royal circles (at least by his own report), becoming Charlotte’s singing teacher and the curator of the Prince Regent’s library. He wrote comic operas through the 1820s and was also, at one time, Robert Browning’s singing teacher.

Nathan had a tempestuous personal life: he married twice (both wives were former pupils), gambled compulsively, was an expert in boxing, and fought a duel to defend the (remaining) honor of Lady Caroline Lamb. In 1841, plagued with debts, he moved with his children to Australia.

Isaac Nathan, c. 1820
Isaac Nathan, c. 1820

This proved to be an excellent decision: he became the lead musical director at Sydney, and the adviser for the sacred music at both the synagogue and the Catholic cathedral there. He introduced the works of Mozart and Beethoven, and wrote the first original opera ever performed in Australia, Don John of Austria (1847).  Nathan was also the first person to make written transcriptions of Australian aboriginal music; his descendants, several of whom became conductors, have been important musical figures in Australia ever since. Nathan died in 1864 in a railway accident, the first of its kind in Australia and perhaps even the Southern Hemisphere.

In his collaboration with Byron in 1815, Nathan was tasked with creating musical settings for the poet’s mostly secular lyrics, and he approached this challenge in an intriguing way: he decided to set Byron’s poems to traditional music from the religious service at Sephardic synagogues (though the music didn’t date back to antiquity, as he claimed). The most important thing to notice about the music is that it doesn’t feel “Romantic.” 1815 was the year of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig (here‘s a version by the excellent Thomas Quasthoff). Just like the Hebrew Melodies, the poem (by Goethe) is set for a solo voice with piano accompaniment, with the intention of being played at an indoor concert. But the Schubertian Romantic style could not be more different from Nathan’s classical treatment of hymnic melodies. At its best, Nathan’s setting is lovely, light, and classical, with an almost early-Mozart feel. (Peter Cochran’s view is more cutting: “The reason why we shall probably wait for ever for the CD is because Nathan’s settings are so tame, sub-Handelian, and non-Hebraic. ‘Wildness and pathos’ are a long way off”). Byron’s lyrics from the collection would eventually be worked on by high Romantic composers of the later nineteenth century — Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Balakirev among them — but we see the time lag between Romanticism in literature and Romanticism in music in the Hebrew Melodies.

In Nathan’s setting, Byron’s emotional language doesn’t always sit easily with the classical musical settings, as we noticed in the five pieces we performed — She Walks in Beauty, The Wild Gazelle, On Jordan’s Banks, O Snatch’d Away in Beauty’s Bloom, and My Soul is Dark. (The linked recordings are from Paul Douglass’s versions of the songs; his whole collection is available here). In music, the idea of “word painting,” which we associate with Romantic composers like the Mendelssohns, involves matching the style of the music to the words. A song associated with death and grief, for instance, might have a slow tempo, or be written in a minor key; a song about ascending a mountain, by contrast, might have an ascending melodic line to match the words. In literature, the analogue is Ruskin’s idea of the “pathetic fallacy,” where the setting or environment mirrors the psychology of character (one famous moment of this type is when Jane Eyre, having rejected Mr Rochester, is suddenly plunged into a bitterly cold winter scene, a dramatic change from the quasi-tropical garden where their engagement took place).

In Nathan’s version of the songs, word painting is used in unusual ways: in “The Wild Gazelle,” for instance, there are fleeting piano runs in the upper register that mimic the leaps of the gazelle, and a middle section, about the exile of the Israelites, shifts into the tonic minor key and moves to a “Larghetto” tempo, with the return of the gazelle in the next section at a faster pace. But in “My Soul is Dark,” the verbal content and musical presentation seem to be at odds: in such a piece, ostensibly about a moment of creative crisis (the poet concludes by “yielding to song”), one would expect a similar darkness of tone in the piano part. But the piece is written in C major, that most benign of keys, and begins with a triumphant, Handel-like opening of consecutive octaves. And yet Nathan does use occasional word painting in this piece — specifically, in the measures that describe the speaker’s fingers playing a harp. All this is confusing for the listener, and worthy of further scholarly attention.

But Nathan’s work does remind us of the early domestic concerts of the better-known Romantic composers, like the Schubertiads where the composer premiered his Lieder, or the weekend concerts of the Mendelssohn family, which showcased the brilliant composition and performance of the young Felix and Fanny. Designed for a standard male or female vocal range, with all embellishments made optional, and a fairly straightforward piano accompaniment, Nathan’s works are ideally suited to a domestic space and to the amateur performance. In this way, our “Songs of Lord Byron” concert last night was of a piece with the intimate salon atmosphere that Romantic composers preferred.

Please check back to this post, since I am hoping to upload a recording of the concert in the next few days.

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