The Library's music division collection is remarkable in scope, quality, and beauty. From this rich lode, we cull a dozen nuggets: works by Jewish composers on Jewish themes. All but two are manuscripts in the authors' own hand.
The first great Jewish musical figure was the biblical King David, to whom Lord Byron paid tribute in one of his "Hebrew Melodies," a series of poems written at the request of the poet's friend, the Honorable D. Kinnaird, to be set to music by Isaac Nathan (1790?-1864).
THE HARP THE MONARCH MINSTREL SWEPT
The King of men, the loved of Heaven
Which Music hallowed while she wept....
It softened men of iron mould,
It gave them virtues not their own;
No ear so dull, no soul so cold,
That felt not, fired not to the tone
Till David's Lyre grew mightier than his throne!
It may well be that young Nathan himself initiated the project, and indeed in 1815 the poems were simultaneously published, with their musical edition, A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, with Appropriate Symphonies and Accompaniments, by J. Braham and I. Nathan; The Poetry Written expressly for the work by the Right Honorable Lord Byron. The work was "published and sold by 1. Nathan," to whom Byron had generously granted the copyright to his "Hebrew Melodies," of which he wrote to Nathan in January 1815:
Murray being about to publish a complete edition of my poetical effusions has a wish to include the stanzas of the Hebrew Melodies-will you allow him that privilege without considering it an infringement on your copyright. I certainly wish to oblige the gentleman but you know Nathan it is against all good fashion to give and take back. I therefore cannot grant what is not at my disposal....
The Hebrew Melodies was then Nathan's project, and a Jewish project he meant it to be. in the Preface to this two-volume work, Nathan wrote:
The Title under which this Work appears before the Public, requires that a few words should be said in explanation of what are the pretensions of the Music. "The Hebrew Melodies" are a Selection from the favorite airs which are still sung in the religious Ceremonies of the Jews. Some of these have ... been preserved by memory and tradition alone, without the assistance of written characters. Their age and originality, therefore, must be left to conjecture. But the latitude given to the taste and genius of their performers has been the means of engrafting on the original Melodies a certain wildness and pathos, which have at length become the chief characteristic of the Sacred Songs of the Jews....
What is described here in elegant Georgian English is what cantorial creativity does to melody. The signatories to the Preface, J. Braham and 1. Nathan, were both sons of synagogue musicians. Braham, the son of the chorister of London's Great Synagogue, had prepared for the cantorate; Nathan, son of the cantor of the synagogue in Canterbury, studied for the rabbinate. Braham became one of the leading singers of his time, Nathan a respected musicologist. To the music of the "Hebrew Melodies," Braham contributed no more than his already well-known name, The work was all English-born Nathan's who, after a career as a music teacher in England, emigrated to Australia to become that continent's first resident professional composer. The Library's copy has the signatures of both Braham and Nathan on the engraved title page of volume 1, and that of Nathan in volume 2.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).