The Dictionary of Sydney chronicles the lives of some of Sydney’s most fascinating people. Isaac Nathan, who was hailed as ‘Australia’s first composer’ despite being the English-born son of a Polish synagogue cantor, was a prolific composer, conductor, and publisher, who met his untimely tragic end in 1864.
Isaac Nathan was born in Canterbury, England in 1790. While in London he met the poet, Byron, setting some of his words to music, worked as a music librarian to King George IV and, according to some accounts, acted as a royal spy. He ran into financial troubles and emigrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney in April 1841.
Nathan rapidly established himself as a singing instructor, forming a musical society at St Mary’s Cathedral and another later close by at St James’s Church. In 1844 he directed the music at the dedication of the York Street Synagogue. He composed several operas, the most famous of which was Don John of Austria, the first opera to be written, composed and produced in Australia. The opera’s first performance in the Victoria Theatre in Sydney in 1847 was, according to Nathan himself, ‘to an elegantly crowded and delighted auditoria’.
In 1841, Nathan set the words of Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem,The Aboriginal Mother to music, which was then performed for the first time by his youngest daughter at a grand concert. This poem had been inspired by the terrible murder of about 30 Aboriginal people in 1838 at Myall Creek by white colonists. He also published transcriptions of local Aboriginal music, and composed a patriotic ode, Australia the Wide and Free, which was played at the inauguration of the Sydney City Council in 1842, and the song, Currency Lasses, which commemorated the 58th anniversary of the colony in 1846.
On 15 January 1864, Isaac Nathan stepped off a horse-drawn tram on the corner of Pitt and Goulburn Streets on his way to his home on Pitt Street. The tram suddenly moved forward as he alighted and Nathan fell underneath and was killed instantly. His death was used by lobbyists to argue for the removal of the Sydney’s first trams, which were seen to be too dangerous for public safety.
Isaac Nathan was buried at Camperdown Cemetery.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW.
She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
The Dictionary of Sydney needs your help. Make a tax-deductible donation to the Dictionary of Sydney today!