The liturgical context of the Byron-Nathan Hebrew Melodies.
The Jewish community in England was in a unique position in the early nineteenth century. (4) Although they were not citizens, English Jews experienced less overt anti-Semitism than did their counterparts on the continent, and therefore, they did not feel as strong a need for reform. As a result, religious authorities exercised proportionately greater control, and resisted the pull towards modernization, retaining Orthodox modes of worship. As aliens, the Jews had no recourse but to conform to traditional modes of behavior if they wished to remain within the Jewish community. Their only other alternative was what Todd M. Endelman has called "radical assimilation," leaving the Jewish community altogether. (5) While a number of English Jews did convert to Christianity, some, like Isaac Nathan, resisted apostasy, seeking a middle ground, a compromise between Jewish ethnicity and British nationality.
From his earliest days, Nathan experienced a conflict between his Jewish and English roots. (6) According to family legend, Nathan's grandfather was the illegitimate child of Polish king Stanislaus Poniatowski--and an unknown Jewish woman. Because of internal Polish problems in the 1770s, when Menahem Mona, Nathan's father, was a child, he and his little brother were sent to Germany, but they were soon separated, and Menahem Mona was raised by some German Jewish friends until, at the age of twenty, he emigrated to England. Nathan's father married an unidentified Jewish woman, and they had five children, Isaac, born in Canterbury in 1790, being the oldest. Nathan's mother deserted the family. She was believed to have run off with an Englishman.
Menahem Mona, himself a cantor, wished his son to be a rabbi and sent Nathan to Solomon Lyon's Anglo-Jewish boarding-school in Cambridge to study Latin, Hebrew and mathematics. But Nathan preferred music, so he persuaded his father to let him abandon theology, and the family moved to London where Nathan trained with Domenico Cocci, student of Nicolo Porpora, Haydn's master. According to his granddaughter, Nathan had all of the attributes of a successful teacher:
Tall, handsome, slightly exotic, his pale face framed with glossy black curls, he was charming in manner and highly educated. His voice was small but beautifully trained, and he could compose sentimental songs by the dozen for his pupils to sing. His Jewish birth was no detriment to him in Regency London, and indeed added to his romantic charm; there are even those who say that the story of the descent from Stanislaus n was invented by him at this time, the better to impress the aristocratic young ladies whose mammas brought them to the studio of the renowned Signor Corri. (Mackerras 14)
Professionally his ethnicity proved no detriment, but personally it created a serious obstacle when Nathan married his student Elizabeth Rosetta Worthington. Mrs. Worthington attempted to sever the relationship, but Isaac, age twenty-two, and Rosetta, seventeen-and-a-half, eloped and, in 1812, they were married twice: first at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington; and then, three months later, at a London Synagogue, where the marriage contract identified Rosetta as a convert to Judaism. At that time, Nathan was able to support his family as singing master to the Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent and heiress to the English Crown, and also as the Regent's musical librarian, a job he would hold even after 1820, when the Regent became King George IV.
Around this time, collections of national songs were in vogue, George Thomson having initiated the trend with his publication of Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793), followed, among others, by Thomas Preston's A Selection of Irish Melodies (1808), Edward Bunting's General Collection of Ancient Irish Music (1796), Lady Morgan's The Lay of an Irish Harp (1807), James Power's rival A Selection of Scottish Melodies (1812), and, of course, Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies (1820). Hoping to amplify his income, Nathan advertised the project in Gentleman's Magazine for May 1813, claiming:
J. Nathan is about to publish "Hebrew Melodies," all of them upwards of 1000 years old and some of them performed by the Antient Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple.
His first choice of collaborator was Byron. However, believing that the poet, then at the height of his popularity, would not consider the project, Nathan contacted Walter Scott, who declined. Nathan then wrote Byron, on 13 June 1814, sending a musical setting for the lines "This Rose to Calm my Brother's Cares" from the Bride of Abydos. Receiving no response, Nathan sent a second letter on 30 June, enticing the poet with "a considerable number of very beautiful Hebrew melodies of undoubted antiquity, some of which are proved to have been sung by the Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" (Mackerras 17). Likely thanks to the intercession of Douglas Kinnaird, Byron agreed to write a few songs, though in its final form, Hebrew Melodies contains a total of twenty-nine. The first edition was completed in 1815, and the name of tenor John Braham, who did not work on the songs, was placed on the title page to increase sales. Braham did perform the song cycle, though, and while he received rave reviews, the "Jewish" project elicited anti-Semitic responses as well. (7) Nathan could not have expected otherwise; yet, in neither his biographies nor his own writing does he refer to the anti-Semitism, or even to his attitude toward his Jewish heritage, except for the repeated insistence that his music was authentic. (8) Still, it hardly seems credible that he would have no feelings on the subject. Rather, it is likely that just as Byron used the lyrics to help articulate his complex attitude towards Christianity, Nathan, too, used the music for the same purpose, to comment on his own complex relationship with and attitude towards Judaism.
The first volume of Hebrew Melodies contained twelve songs, and thus far, liturgical sources have been located for the first nine. (9) Although it is possible to organize and interpret these songs in a number of different ways, when Nathan's juxtaposition of Jewish liturgy and Byronic lyric is placed within the context of post-Enlightenment Anglo-Jewish culture, four general themes emerge: faith versus reason; religious Zionism versus secular nationalism; messianic passivity versus social activism; and, finally, on a personal level, Jewish ethnicity versus English identity.
Briefly, the contemporary debate over faith versus reason, which was central to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, originated in 1782, when Naphtali Herz Wessely (1725-1805) published his program of educational reform for European Jews. (10) Writing in response to the Austrian Edict of Tolerance, Wessely urged the Jews to send their children to public schools for a vocational education in the vernacular language. Before this, the Jews had been a nation within a nation, studying exclusively traditional rabbinic knowledge, "the Law of God," but not what Wessely calls Torat ha-adam--"the law of man." Through his program, Wessely hoped that the Jews would be able to demonstrate that they merited emancipation--that they could be patriotic citizens who contributed to the commonweal, while still retaining their identity as Jews. However, religious authorities, fearing to lose control over their communities, not only resisted reform but also excommunicated Wesseley.
The second theme involves the controversy over a literal versus a metaphorical interpretation of Zionism. Although the political movement would not crystallize until late in the nineteenth century, the religious belief that the Jews would return to Jerusalem has always been a significant element of the liturgy. In the earlier nineteenth century, however, Zionism was problematic for diasporean Jews whose quest for emancipation was met with accusations of divided loyalties--between the European nation in which they lived and Jerusalem. In response, reformers shifted from a literal to a metaphorical interpretation of Zionism, consolidating the idealistic values of Zionism into a realistic commitment to the world. (11) A corollary to the controversy over Zionism involved the question of messianism. While traditionalists believed that the Jews were to wait passively for the return of the messiah, who would lead them back to Jerusalem, reformers, who thought that the Jews should live actively in the present, argued that enhancing their lives in the Diaspora would not contradict belief in a future messianic age. Finally, these abstract conflicts were felt on the personal level, forcing individuals, like Isaac Nathan, to negotiate between the sometimes conflicting pulls towards their Jewish ethnicity and British nationality.
Faith versus Reason
Articulating the controversy over faith versus reason, "If That High World" and "The Wild Gazelle" can be read as songs of the Haskalah, the Byronic skepticism of the lyrics creating a counterpoint to the liturgical religiosity of the music. In the first, Nathan places Byron's speculative sonnet "If That High World" in the musical setting of a Kaddish, a juxtaposition that replaces blind faith with rational analysis as the basis for spiritual belief. In general, a Kaddish is a prayer that praises and glorifies God, as it anticipates the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. (12) Written in Aramaic, the Kaddish exists in four forms: the Whole Kaddish, the Half Kaddish, the Kaddish de-Rabbanan ("the scholars' Kaddish"), and the most widely known, the Mourner's Kaddish, which, designed for responsive reading, reads:
Mourners Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God throughout the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily, yea, soon; and say ye, Amen. Congregation and Mourners May His great name be blessed forever and ever. Mourners Exalted and honored be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory transcends, yea, is beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say ye, Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen. May He who establisheth peace in the heavens, grant peace unto us and unto all Israel; and say ye, Amen. (13)
As a mainstay of the Jewish service, the Kaddish has a long history, likely--given the absence of references to the Temple--dating back to biblical times. Musically, it has attracted a wide variety of arrangements, though, of relevance to Nathan's project, in the Ashkenazi rite (that used by Nathan), the music "is distinguished by a striving for sublime melodic expression."
Byron's "If That High World" exploits the two-part structure of an Italian sonnet for a skeptical analysis of a hypothetical proposition, the question of whether or not there is an afterlife, the opening octet posing the condition to be fulfilled by the closing sestet. The speaker begins with what could be read as a double hypothetical--"If that high world, which lies beyond / Our own, surviving Love endears" (1-2)--in which he speculates both about the existence of heaven and about the survival of human emotion after physical death, the former being a prerequisite to the latter. Although there is no verifiable proof of the existence of heaven, still, he would "welcome those untrodden spheres!" (5). Choosing emotion over reason, the speaker prefers "To soar from earth and find all fears / Lost in thy light--Eternity!" (7-8). After essentially abandoning reason for emotion, the speaker then makes his leap of faith, "It must be so," the reunion of Lovers after death providing the only rationale for existence in this world: "'tis not for self/ That we so tremble on the brink." Rather, the only consolation for life is belief in the afterlife:
Oh! in that future let us think To hold each heart the heart that shares, With them the immortal waters drink, And soul in soul grow deathless theirs! (13-16)
Thus, what opens as a skeptical theological inquiry concludes with an affirmation of spiritual belief. Nathan reports in Fugitive Pieces,
In a subsequent conversation, he [Byron] observed to me, 'they accuse me of atheism--an atheist I could never be--no man of reflection, can feel otherwise than doubtful and anxious, when reflecting on futurity.... Alas! Nathan, we either know too little, or feel too much on this subject; and if it be criminal to speculate on it (as the gentlemen critics say) I fear I must ever remain an awful offender.' (6)
Both "If That High World" and the Kaddish affirm a spiritual belief, but Byron's lyric makes a conscious choice that redounds back against what, in contrast, appears to be the blind faith inherent in the liturgy, privileging, by contrast, the active choice to believe, as opposed to passive acceptance of a liturgical tradition.
The next combination of lyric and liturgy can be viewed as a concrete instantiation of the criticism of blind faith over skepticism. With his choice of the Yigdal, a paraphrase of the Thirteen Articles of Faith, Nathan relocates Byron's "The Wild Gazelle" within the context of Jewish skepticism. (14) As formulated by Moses Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon; known as "Rambam"; 1135-1204), the Articles of Faith are as follows:
1. The existence of God which is perfect and sufficient unto itself and which is the cause of the existence of all other beings.
2. God's unity which is unlike all other kinds of unity.
3. God must not be conceived in bodily terms, and the anthropomorphic expressions applied to God in Scripture have to be understood in a metaphorical sense.
4. God is eternal.
5. God alone is to be worshipped and obeyed. There are no mediating powers able freely to grant man's petitions, and intermediaries must not be invoked.
7. Moses is unsurpassed by any other prophet.
8. The entire Torah was given to Moses.
9. Moses' Torah will not be abrogated or superseded by another divine law nor will anything be added to, or taken away from it.
10. God knows the actions of men.
11. God rewards those who fulfill the commandments of the Torah, and punishes those who transgress them.
12. The coming of the Messiah.
13. The resurrection of the dead. (15)
In the first half of the fourteenth century, an unknown poet transformed the articles of faith into a prayer that begins with the couplet, "The living God O magnify and bless, / Transcending time and here eternally," and concludes:
Messiah He will send at end of days, And all the faithful to salvation lead. God will the dead again to life restore In His abundance of almighty love. Then blessed be His name, all names above, And let His praise resound forevermore. (Silverman 25)
As part of the daily liturgy, the Yigdal has been put to music a number of times, all versions sharing "moods of pride and cheerfulness." One of the more popular is the "Leoni Yidgal," attributed to Meyer Leon, cantor at Duke's Place Ashkenazi Synagogue in London. After hearing it sung, Thomas Olivers, a Wesleyan minister, translated Yigdal into The God of Abraham Praise (published in 1770), a hymn incorporated into the Anglican service.
Although the text is orthodox, its originator was not. Maimonides was a rational philosopher who, though living long before the Haskalah, anticipated many of its reforms: he sought to introduce the study of Greek philosophy into the traditional curriculum; he did not believe in a literal return, but advocated a metaphorical approach to Zionism; and he opposed the control exerted over the Jewish community by biblical exegetes. Though revered, Maimonides remains a controversial figure, having written two apparently contradictory texts: in Hebrew, the Mishnah Torah, a justification of the Jewish faith, and in Arabic, the Guide for the Perplexed, a skeptical study of religious orthodoxy.
By superimposing "The Wild Gazelle" onto the Yigdal, Nathan ironizes the liturgical statement of faith. Byron's lyrics can be read as a skeptical interpretation, if not actual parody, of the post-exilic Jewish condition. The central symbol of the poem, the wild gazelle, is the opposite of the Jews: it is an uncivilized animal which, though beautiful, is incapable of understanding, much less appreciating the fact that it is permitted to run wild in the Holy Land, and it certainly cannot pray to the God who created the land. As the four stanzas progress, Byron gradually shifts focus from the privileged animal that roams over the still beautiful hills of Judah, to a comparison with the exiled Jews who once far outshone the gazelle, with "an eye more bright," and "statelier maids" (7, 12). Yet now, vegetation in Jerusalem is "More blest ... / Than Israel's scattered race" (13-14). The final stanza contrasts the current state of the Jews with the gazelle:
But we must wander witheringly, In other lands to die; And where our fathers' ashes be, Our own may never lie: Our temple hath not left a stone, And Mockery sits on Salem's throne. (19-24)
Instead of concluding with a conventional prayer for restoration, Byron replaces the idea of God with a personified Mockery, implying the futility of any messianic hope for the future. When viewed from the context of the musical setting, Byron's lyrics would seem to undermine the Yigdal's joyful articulation of faith. Yet, when the words are viewed from the broader perspective of the liturgical history, with its relationship to the Maimonidean controversy, the contemporary debate over the need for Enlightenment and skeptical inquiry emerges. The point, as the combination of "The Wild Gazelle" with the Yigdal seems to imply, is not to abandon faith, but to question the "Mockery" that "sits on Salem's throne."
Religious Zionism versus Secular Nationalism
For the next two songs, "O Snatch'd Away in Beauty's Bloom" and "On Jordan's Banks," Nathan selects musical settings that seem to undermine the orthodox belief in Zionism, suggesting, instead, that the Jews might do better to build lives for themselves in the Diaspora. In the first, he uses the traditional song, Eli Zion ve-Areha ("Will Zion and its Cities"), to interpret Byron's symbol of lost beauty as the lost Jerusalem, which should be mourned but ultimately forgotten. Choosing a Kinah, an elegy, from a collection of Odes to Zion, Nathan places Byron's poem within the context
of Zionism. Eli Zion ve-Areha, anonymously composed in the Middle Ages, consists of twelve stanzas enumerating the cruelties suffered by Judea and its inhabitants during the destruction of the Second Temple. As an elegy, Eli Zion, which has become for Ashkenazim a symbol of the yearly commemoration of the Destruction, is sung by the congregation while standing.
Byron's lyrics dramatize the emotional conflict created by the loss of a beloved. At death, the first stanza indicates, the mourner gains some degree of solace in the belief that his lost love will become part of the universal life cycle, as "on thy tuff shall roses rear," while "the wild cypress wave in tender gloom" (2, 4). By the second stanza, however, the mourner knows that such consolation is artificial, only a personified Sorrow, "feed[ing] deep thought with many a dream" (7), keeping memory of the beloved alive. Consequently, as the third stanza attempts to assert, the only alternative is to try to forget, "we know that tears are vain" (11). Still, that knowledge does not relieve either the mourner or his consoler: "And thou--who tell'st me to forget, / Thy looks are wan--thine eyes are wet" (14-15).
Perhaps tellingly, in Fugitive Pieces, Nathan says that some time after putting the lyrics to music, he asked Byron about their meaning:
In submitting this melody to his Lordship's judgment, I once enquired in what manner they might refer to any scriptural subject: he appeared for a moment affected--at last replied, "Every mind must make its own reference: there is scarcely one of us who could not imagine that the affliction belongs to himself, to me it certainly belongs." His Lordship here, with agitation, exclaimed, "She is no more, and perhaps the only vestige of her existence is the feeling I sometimes fondly indulge." (30)
Progressing from the state of mourning, in "On Jordan's Banks" Nathan uses the popular Hanukah song Ma'oz Tsur to imply an accusation against a God who would deprive the Jews of Jerusalem. Thematically, both Byron's "On Jordan's Banks" and the Hebrew Ma'oz Tsur can be considered proto-Zionistic; however, the mournful theme and tone of the English lyrics contradict the joyous hopefulness of the traditional song. Probably composed in thirteenth-century Germany, by someone named Mordecai (the first letter of each stanza forms an acrostic of his name), Ma'oz Tsur, a song usually sung at the ceremonial lighting of the candles, contains in its complete form six stanzas, all revolving around the theme of the redemption from the loss of Zion. The first stanza, a prayer for the reestablishment of the biblical Temple worship, is followed successively by stanzas of praise for the delivery from bondage in Egypt, from the Babylonian captivity, from the Persians (as related in the Book of Esther), from the Greco-Syrians in the second century BCE (the occasion for the Chanukah celebration) and, finally, from the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa in the twelfth century (this stanza is seldom sung). The tune was so infectious that Martin Luther adapted it for his chorale, "So weiss ich eins was mich erfreut" (Burwick and Douglass 240).
Byron's lyrics reverse the tenor of the song. The holiday of Hanukah celebrates the return of the Jews to the temple after its having been defiled by the Greco-Syrians, the specific miracle being that the small amount of uncontaminated oil lasted for eight days, long enough to keep the lamp lit until more pure oil could be found. Thematically, each stanza of Ma'oz Tsur celebrates a return to Zion after a period of exile, bringing the tune to the composer's era. In contrast, Byron approaches the topic from the opposite perspective, focusing on the present loss, rather than the past or future, to question the kind of God who would permit the contamination of His own Holy Land.
The first stanza, depicting the post-exilic Middle East, uses the present tense to indict a sleeping God who has permitted the holy sites to be defiled:
On Jordan's banks the Arabs' camels stray, On Sion's hill the false-one's votaries pray, The Baal-adorer bows on Sinai's steep-Yet there--even there--Oh God! thy thunders sleep. (1-4)
Even more incomprehensible, as the second stanza suggests, is the fact that these were the places where God had revealed Himself to the Israelites:
There--where thy finger scorch'd the tablet stone, There--where thy Shadow to thy people shone! Thy Glory shrouded in its garb of fire: Thyself-none living see and not expire! (5-8)
The speaker lays blame, not on the people who forgot their God, but the reverse, on a God who apparently forgot his obligation to his people. The ultimate question, then, is how long this God will sleep, leaving his people in exile:
Oh! in the lightning let thy glance appear! Sweep from his shivered hand the oppressor's spear: How long by tyrants shall thy land be trod? How long thy temple worshipless, Oh God? (9-12)
By placing Byron's skeptical indictment of Zionism within the context of a celebration of God's delivery of the Jews from exile, Nathan exposes the fundamental question underlying Zionism: Should the Jews believe literally in Zionism, or should they transform their belief into a metaphorical interpretation of a return to Jerusalem, and actively build a life in the Diaspora?
Messianic Passivity versus Social Activism
If Zionism mourns the loss of a golden age in the past, messianism projects its restoration in the future. To Christians, that belief revolves around a spiritual New Jerusalem said to replace the contemporary corporeal city. Jews, in contrast, believe in a physical restoration, the messiah, a human descendant of the House of David, being prophesied to lead the Jews from their exile back to their home in Jerusalem. As with Zionism, enlightened Jews advocated a metaphorical belief in messianism, to be accomplished by transferring the apocalyptic ideals to the reality of their lives in the present. When placed in their musical settings, "She Walks in Beauty" and "Jephtha's Daughter" both can be seen to undermine a literal view of messianism.
As the first of the songs Nathan would set to music, the lyrics of "She Walks in Beauty" predate his collaboration with Byron, having been written on 11 June 1814, when Byron met Anne Beatrix, wife of Byron's second cousin Robert John Wilmot. When they first discussed collaborating, Byron sent to Nathan a few songs, including, among others, "Sun of the Sleepless," "Francisca," "It is the Hour," and "She Walks in Beauty." Although Nathan assumed that the collaboration would be limited to these few songs, it seems that Byron was so entranced with how the musical settings deepened and even transformed "She Walks in Beauty" into "an Invocation of the Muse," that he extended the project (Burwick and Douglass 8). For its musical setting, Nathan chose Lekha Dodi, a celebration of the mystical union between the Messiah and the Shekhinah, the female manifestation of the "Divine Presence."
Historically, Lekha Dodi, "Come, my beloved," are the opening words of a poem written by Solomon ha-Levi Alkabez (1505-1584), a mystic and poet of the early sixteenth century. Like other kabbalists of the time, Alkabez literalized and then dramatized what had previously been viewed as metaphorical beliefs. In his song, Alkabez personifies the coming Sabbath as the Shekhinah, kabbalistically interpreted as female "Divine Presence," whose union with the Messiah, it is said, will bring about the restoration of the cosmos. Alkabez's poem operates on a number of different levels. As an acrostic consisting of nine stanzas, the initial letters of the first eight spelling out his name, Lekha Dodi can be read as a personal prayer. Mythically, as indicated by its opening line, "Come, nay beloved, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath," the poem describes the reunification of the Messiah and his Shekhinah, who has been exiled by the Fall. Kabbalists believe that the sexual union of male and female-traditionally occurring on Friday nights--not only fulfills the injunction to be fruitful and multiply, but actually assists in the reunification of the Messiah and his Shekhinah. As a celebration of the coming Sabbath, Lekha Dodi expresses joy on all of these different levels, from the mundane end of the work week to the mystical restoration of the cosmos. Soon after its composition, the poem was almost immediately integrated into Friday night services, as Jews worldwide turned to the entrance of the synagogue to welcome the "Sabbath bride." (16)
In setting the song, Nathan uses only Byron's first stanza to suggest that a literal belief of messianism creates an artificial stasis which prevents, rather than promotes, progress. When the first stanza is separated from the last two, the repetition of the sentence "She walks in beauty" is transformed from the idealization of a woman to the symbol of man's fallen state, the exile of the Shekhinah:
She walks in beauty--like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies, And all that's best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes: Thus mellow'd to that tender light Which heaven to gaudy day denies. She walks in beauty--like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies.
As an abstract symbol, the Shekhinah lacks the physical characteristics that Byron detailed in the rest of the poem--"the nameless grace" (8), "every raven tress" (9), and the facial expression formed by cheek, and brow, "The smiles that win, the tints that glow" (15). Absent these characteristics, all we know about the woman is that "She walks in beauty"--like the Shekhinah in exile. Without any kind of resolution, the subject of the poem becomes a figure of the contemporary state of the Jewish people, unemancipated in the Diaspora.
Similarly, in "Jephtha's Daughter," Nathan ironically juxtaposes the biblical trope of willing sacrifice with the melody of the Song of Songs to question the love of God for his people. In the biblical story (Judges 11:30-40), Jephtha, an illegitimate son of Gilead, is sent from his father's house by his brothers. Soon thereafter, when the Ammonites wage war against Israel, the elders of his tribe ask him to lead them in battle. Jephtha agrees, but only if he can become leader of the tribe. Once back, he attempts to reason with the Ammonites, requesting safe passage through their lands, but they don't trust him. Jephtha then prays for God's assistance, offering as a bargaining chip to sacrifice the first thing he sees when he returns home victorious. It is his only child, his daughter; she does acquiesce to her father's obligation, requesting only that she be permitted to "bewail her virginity" for two months before her death.
Byron's version is written from the daughter's perspective, as she in successive stanzas I) acquiesces to her father's vow to God for the sake of country, 2) returns from her two-months of seclusion, 3) attests to her virginity, 4) agrees to be sacrificed, and 5) prophesies that she will become a symbol. Left out, of course, is the identity of that symbol--the figure of virgin sacrifice to a vengeful God. Hence, according to Nathan, Byron's repeated claim that her blood is not on his hands:
When these beautiful lines were composed by Lord Byron, I was anxious to ascertain his real sentiments on the subject, hinting my own belief that it might not necessarily mean a positive sacrifice of the daughter's life, but perhaps referred to a sentence of perpetual seclusion, a state held by the Jews as dead indeed to society, and the most severe infliction that could be imposed. With his usual frankness, he observed, "Whatever may be the absolute state of the case, I am innocent of her blood; she has been killed to my hands: besides, you know such an infliction, as the world goes, would not be a subject for sentiment or pathos--therefore do not seek to exumate [sic] the lady." On another occasion when Jephtha was the subject of conversation, his lordship with much good humour suddenly put an end to the argument exclaiming, "Well my hands are not imbrued in her blood! I shall not by killing her incur censure from the world, for an attempt to deprive them of the pleasure of thinking a little more on the subject. (Fugitive Pieces 10-12)
By setting "Jephtha's Daughter" to music taken from the Song of Songs, Nathan seems not only to proclaim his and Byron's innocence, but to direct the blame toward God who apparently demanded, and certainly accepted, such a sacrifice.
As the most erotic book of the Bible, Shir ha-Shirim, Song of Songs, is a love poem, attributed to Solomon, in which the lover proclaims his love for his beloved, in quite physical terms. Traditionally, the poem is allego rized, to Jews as the expression of God's love for his people, to Christians as Christ's for his Church. The story of Jephtha and his daughter, however, articulates not love but commerce. Jephtha, a "love child," is banished by his legitimate siblings who do not want to share their inheritance with him, and is only brought back because they cannot defend themselves. Similarly, he agrees to return only if he can be their leader. Once in power, he attempts to maintain peace, but when confronted with war, rather than relying on God's love for his people, he bargains with God, and, finally, insists on fulfilling the bargain, making his daughter pay the cost of a deal over which she had no say. Thus, the lyrics subvert the idealization of love found in the biblical source of the music.
In addition, when setting the song, Nathan omitted the second stanza, the only expression of the kind of unconditional love represented by Canticles:
And the voice of my mourning is o'er, And the mountains behold me no more: If the hand that I love lay me low, There cannot be pain in the blow! (5-8)
In this stanza, the daughter describes the only action that she has control over: her choice to sacrifice herself willingly for her tither. Minus this stanza, the lyrics focus solely on the economic exchange.
Jewish Ethnicity versus English Identity
In the last group of songs, Nathan seems to focus on the personal question of his identity as an English Jew. In addition to the conflict between his ethnicity and nationality, Nathan, as a young man, had rejected the rabbinate in favor of secular music. Leaving aside the oedipal implications of how Nathan's choices might relate to the fact that his father was a cantor, the question of his relationship to his religious heritage remains problematic. Although, according to the Jewish marriage contract, his first wife had converted, his children were raised Christian; and his second wife, also a Christian, never signed the Jewish marriage contract at all. The vast majority of Nathan's music was non-Jewish, and after he moved to Australia, he concentrated on indigenous music, ultimately becoming known as the father of Australian music. Yet, he himself remained Jewish. These personal conflicts might be revealed through the liturgical settings derived from the Yore Kippur service for lyrics about the theme of music. Specifically, the music for "Oh! Weep for Those" and "My Soul is Dark" evokes the Kol Nidre prayer which opens the service for the Day of Atonement, and that of "The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept" is based on the Ya'aleh, a prayer from the evening service. (17) The juxtaposition of literary theme and musical setting suggests the possibility that on some level, at any rate, these songs might comprise Nathan's own penitence for any sins he feared he might have committed.
While neither "My Soul is Dark" nor "Oh! Weep for Those" is set to an identifiable tune, motifs in both echo the Kol Nidre, "all vows," a prayer in which the penitent asks to be released from any vows made rashly to God during the preceding year. Dating back to the eighth century, the prayer developed in response to the fear that during times of stress, rash promises made to God might have been left unfulfilled. Kol Nidre applies solely to vows made to God--those to people cannot be voided through the Kol Nidre prayer--and its purpose is to clear the conscience of the supplicant. (18)
The speaker in "My Soul is Dark" seems afflicted by the remorse the Kol Nidre prayer is designed to alleviate. As a dramatization of 1 Samuel 16:14-23, Byron, according to Nathan, intended this poem to depict madness:
It was generally conceived, that Lord Byron's reported singularities, approached on some occasions to derangement, and at one period indeed, it was very currently asserted, that his intellects were actually impaired. The report only served to amuse his Lordship. He referred to the circumstance, and declared, that he would try how a Madman could write; seizing the pen with eagerness, he for a moment fixed his eyes in majestic wildness on vacancy; when like a flash of inspiration, without erasing a single word, the above verses were the result, which he put into my possession with this remark: "if I am mad who write, be certain that you are so who compose!" (Fugitive Pieces 37)
Within the poem, the specific form of madness seems to be that described in the Bible, the torment produced by "an evil spirit of the lord," that which afflicts the penitent before reciting the Kol Nidre prayer. Byron's lyrics contain two stanzas, the first the assertion that only David's music will ease Saul's suffering--"My soul is dark--Oh! quickly string / The harp I yet can brook to hear" (1-2), and second, that the music must be "wild and deep," that is, intense enough to reach the depths of his suffering. Not co incidentally, the poem anticipates Nathan's description from the Preface to the first edition of Hebrew Melodies, that the music evinces "a certain wildness and pathos, which have at length become the chief characteristic of the Sacred Songs of the Jews."
Although "Oh! Weep for Those" is thematically closer to poems with proto-Zionistic lyrics, its musical setting, with a Kol Nidre motif, shifts the emphasis from a lost Jerusalem to the need for atonement. Based on Psalms 55:6, "And I say, 'Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest,'" Byron transforms the psalmist's subjunctive into the elegiac, "Oh! Weep for those that wept by Babel's stream, / Whose shrines are desolate, whose land a dream" (1-2). After, in the first stanza, mourning the loss of Jerusalem, the speaker asks in the second, where the new Jerusalem might be--"And where shall Israel lave her bleeding feet?" (5)--to mourn its impossibility in the third: "Israel but the grave!" (12). Significantly, from Nathan's perspective, while the first two stanzas contain references to music, the third does not. That is, when referring to the loss of Jerusalem, Byron says: "Weep for the harp of Judah's broken shell" (3), and when exploring the possibility of a new home, he asks:
And when shall Zion's songs again seem sweet? And Judah's melody once more rejoice The hearts that leaped before its heavenly voice? (6-8)
Yet, the last stanza, dealing with the impossibility of a return to Jerusalem, contains no reference to music, as though there can be no music without life, and conversely, no life without music. This requirement, from the composer's perspective, might have suggested the emotional value of the Kol Nidre.
Finally, the last of the lyrics, "The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept," is set to Ya'aleh tahanun. A three-part supplication, the text of the Ya'aleh is designed to span the twenty-four hours of Yore Kippur. Beginning with the lines,
O may our supplications arise at nightfall, Our prayers approach Thy presence from the dawn, And let our exultation come at dusk. (1-3; Silverman 227)
Ya'aleh refers first, to the utterance of the prayer at Kol Nidre, the evening before Yore Kippur; second, to the continuation of prayer, beginning at dawn, on the Day of Atonement; and finally, to the culmination at sunset, by which time, the penitent hopes, the prayer will have been accepted by God.
According to Nathan, When his Lordship put the copy into my hand, it terminated thus-- Its sound aspired to Heaven, and there abode. This, however, did not complete the verse, and I wished him to help out the melody. He replied, "Why I have sent you to Heaven--it would be difficult to go further." My attention for a few moments was called to some other person, and his Lordship, whom I had hardly missed exclaimed--"Here, Nathan, I have brought you down again," and immediately presented me the beautiful and sublime lines which conclude the melody. (Fugitive Pieces 33)
While Nathan does not indicate what melody he had in mind when he asked Byron for a fourth verse, the result can be read as a prologue and three-part Ya'aleh tahanun. The first stanza sets the stage for the Ya'aleh, describing the loss of music, when the harp's "chords are riven!" (5). The speaker then, in stanza two, describes how David's music had, in effect, ascended to heaven--"Till David's Lyre grew mightier than his throne!" (10), and in stanza three, how it arrived before God--"Its sound aspired to Heaven and there abode!" (15), to conclude with the prayer for reconciliation:
Since then, though heard on earth no more, Devotion and her daughter Love Still bid the bursting spirit soar To sounds that seem as from above, In dreams that day's broad light can not remove. (16--20)
The last stanza, like the last part of the "Ya'aleh prayer, returns to the uncertainty of everyday life. At the end of the Ya'aleh, the spiritual elevation to the level of God, all one can do is hope that the prayer, "though heard on earth no more," has been accepted: "Still bid the bursting spirit soar."
Oddly, although the idea for the Hebrew Melodies was Nathan's, and although the songs were the product of a true collaboration between lyricist and composer, by far the vast majority of criticism has revolved around Byron's poems, less than a handful of Jewish musicologists, followed by Burwick and Douglass, considering Nathan's contribution to the project. For that reason, the songs have never really received a comprehensive evaluation in terms of their original purpose or their broader cultural implications. Overlooked have been many literary, historical, theological, musical and critical dimensions to the songs, all of which need further exploration. Not least of these are the liturgical contexts for Nathan's compositions. While there is no direct evidence that Nathan--or Byron--intended the
music to evoke the liturgy, it is hard to imagine that the son of a cantor, who was brought up to be a rabbi, would not be aware of the religious significance of prayers sung on particular holidays, for specific religious purposes (or, for that matter, that the intellectually curious Byron would not have inquired about the Jewish implications of the music his songs were being set to). Therefore, to ignore the liturgical contexts is to limit the plenitude of the Byron-Nathan Hebrew Melodies.
Brooklyn, New York
I would like to thank Paul Douglass, Professor of English at San Jose State University, for his help revising an earlier version of this essay.
(1.) All quotations from the Hebrew Melodies are from Thomas L. Ashton, Byron's Hebrew Melodies (Austin: U of Texas P, 1972). Nathan published the first edition under the title, A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern with Appropriate Symphonies & Accompaniments, by, I. Braham & I. Nathan, the Poetry Written Expressly for the Work by the Right Honble, Lord Byron (London: I Nathan, 1815). Nathan provides some details about his collaboration with Byron in Fugitive Pieces and Reminiscences of Lord Byron: Containing an Entire New Edition of the Hebrew Melodies, With the Addition of Several Never Before Published (London: Whittaker, Treacher and Co., 1829), though, as his title indicates, his subject is Byron. Written some time after their collaboration ended in 1815, based on memory, and designed to enhance sales of his book, the information in Fugitive Pieces, though interesting, is not necessarily complete or accurate.
(2.) A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, by Isaac Nathan and Lord Byron (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1988). The edition was preceded by separate essays in Studien zur englischen Romantik 1 by both Burwick ("Identity and Tradition in the Hebrew Melodies'" : 123-37), and by Douglass ("Isaac Nathan's Settings for Hebrew Melodies" : 139-51; and "Hebrew Melodies as Songs: Why we Need a New Edition," The Byron Journal 14 : 12-21).
(3.) According to Burwick and Douglass, musicologists, before stopping their work, identified the musical sources for six of the songs: "She Walks in Beauty" as Lekhah Dodi; "The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept," Ya'aleh; "If That High World," the Kaddish; "The Wild Gazelle," Yigdal; "On Jordan's Banks," Ma'oz Tsur. There is confusion over the source for "Oh, Weep for Those That Wept by Babel's Stream." Francis L. Cohen, in the entry "Isaac Nathan," written for the Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1925) 9: 179, associates it with the Blessing of the Priests, and an old northern folk-song adopted into the Passover service, while Burwick and Douglass, omitting the suggestion of the priestly blessing, raise the possibility of Kol Nidre (see Burwick and Douglass 11 and 240-41). Douglass identified the sources of three more: "Oh Snatched Away in Beauty's Bloom," Eli Tzion; "My Soul Is Dark," same as "Oh! Weep for Those"; and "Thy Days are Done," an older Missinai tune, with ornamentation reminiscent of Kol Nidre (see his "Isaac Nathan's Settings for Hebrew Melodies," 151 n. 10). The implication of this research is not that Nathan stopped using liturgical sources for his songs, but that the musicologists stopped searching for the original settings.
(4.) The standard Anglo-Jewish history of the period is Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979; rpt., with a new preface, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999). Also informative is the third chapter, "Poverty to Prosperity (1800-1870)" of Endelman's The Jews of Britain: 1656 to 2000 (Berkeley: U of California P, 2002) 79-124.
(5.) See Endelman's Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History, 1656-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990).
(6.) We do not have much reliable information on Nathan, the biography by Olga Somech Phillips, Isaac Nathan: Friend of Byron (London: Minerva, 1940) having been superseded--and corrected--by that of his granddaughter Catherine Mackerras, The Hebrew Melodist: A Life of Isaac Nathan (Sydney: Currawong, 1963).
(7.) For examples, see Burwick and Douglass 15-16. The complete reviews are reprinted in Donald H. Reiman, ed., The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers, Part B, 5 vols. (New York: Garland, 1972). On John Braham (nee Abraham), see Cecil Roth, "Braham, John," Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972) 4: 1289-90; and Endelman, Radical Assimilation 46-47. In "Byron and Nathan: A Musical Collaboration," Graham Pont argues that Braham played a larger role in the composition than is generally acknowledged (Byron Journal 27 : 51-65); in contrast, Martin Bidney, in "Motsas' for Lord Byron: The Judeo-British Literary Persona of Isaac Nathan," argues that Nathan's contribution has been undervalued (Byron Journal 25 : 60-70).
(8.) Robert Harding Evans, whose Essay on the Music of the Hebrews: Originally Intended as a Preliminary Discourse to the Hebrew Melodies Published by Msrrs. Braham and Nathan (London: John Booth, 1816) was originally planned as a preface to the first edition of the Hebrew Melodies, says:
Now, I conceive that this question may easily be answered by what the querist himself has just before stated; for it must be evident to all, that of the Persians have derived their manner of singing "from the ancient Oriental Jews," and of such manner accords with that of the Germans, the latter must possess the true harmony of their ancestors; and hence it will follow, that if you have selected your Melodies, as I understand is the fact, from a variety of chaunts which were sung to you by German Jews, those Melodies are justly entitled to the originality they claim. (44-45)
Nathan himself, in his An Essay on the History and Theory of Music; and on the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice (London: G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823), defends Jewish music by extolling the "beauty and originality of the Hebrew music" (227). Interestingly, later Jewish musicologists would dispute that claim, though Burwick and Douglass defend Nathan's judgment (see Burwick and Douglass 11).
(9.) On the music, see Douglass' essays, "Isaac Nathan's Settings for Hebrew Melodies," "Hebrew Melodies as Songs: Why we Need a new Edition," and Burwick and Douglass 10-14, and their "Notes on the Songs" 240-42.
(10.) On Wessely, see Edward Breuer, "Naphtali Herz Wessely and the Cultural Dislocations of an Eighteenth-Century Maskil," in New Perspectives on the Haskalah, ed. Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin (London and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001) 27-47; and Shmuel Feiner, "The Wessely Affair: Threats and Anxieties," the fourth chapter of his The Jewish Enlightenment, trans. Chaya Nao (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004) 87-104. On the Haskalah in England, see David B. Ruderman, Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000). Endelman discusses Anglo-Jewish educational reforms in The Jews of Georgian England 154-59.
(11.) The standard study of Reform Judaism is Michael A. Meyer's Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988).
(12.) It might also be possible to include "Warriors and Chiefs" here, its melody, according to Douglass, resembling a Kaddish, this one for the New Year. Information about the Kaddish comes from Raphael Posner, Uri Kaploun and Shalom Cohen, eds., Jewish Liturgy: Prayer and Synagogue Service through the Ages (Jerusalem: Keter, 1975) 112-15.
(13.) "Mourner's Kaddish," in Morris Silverman, ed., High Holiday Prayer Book: Rosh Hashanah--New Year's Day, Yore Kippur--Day of Atonement, With a New Translation and Explanatory Notes, together with Supplementary Prayers, Meditations, and Readings in Prose and Verse (Bridgeport: The Prayer Book P, 1951) 23. All translations of prayers are from the Silverman edition of the High Holiday Prayer Book.
(14.) On Yigdal, see Posner, Kaploun and Cohen 111-12.
(15.) See Alexander Altman, "Articles of Faith," in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972) 3: 654-60.
(16.) In "Byron's Passovers and Nathan's Melodies," Jeremy Hugh Baron speculates that "Nathan must have been well aware of the Kabbalist origins of Lekhah Dodi, and I speculate that Byron was too" (Judaism 51 : 19-29 ). Although the lyric has remained consistent since its composition, its musical accompaniment has varied from community to community, there being over 2000 versions. Some evolved from the Sephardi tradition, others Ashkenazi, others still from regional differences within the two major divisions. Beyond that, some of the tunes incorporated contemporary musical forms, while others borrowed from different parts of the liturgy (see Posner, Kaploun and Cohen 131-33).
(17.) Multiple sources have been located for "Oh! Weep for Those" and "My Soul is Dark." In their introduction Burwick and Douglass, citing Cohen, identify the source as a northern folk song adapted for the Passover service (13), though in the Notes on the Songs, they discuss the influence of Kol Nidre (240-41). Because my purpose here is only to suggest the possibility that Nathan was influenced by the liturgical sources of his songs, nay discussion is necessarily selective, and not comprehensive.
(18.) See Silvennan 206-8, for notes on and the text of Kol Nidre.
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|Title Annotation:||Isaac Nathan and Lord Byron|
|Author:||Spector, Sheila A.|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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