Sunday, April 3, 2011

Byron Rocks, Sort of

Byron wrote “She walks in beauty, like the night,” and “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” as lyrics to go with music composed by his friend, Isaac Nathan. Nathan was not only a composer, but a Jewish composer, which made both Byron's collaboration with him noteworthy and, at the time, scandalous. The collection, first offered in 1815, sold out immediately. Pirated editions, cashing in on the collection’s popularity, also sold out. And Byron and Nathan collaborated on an expanded version, published the following year.

She Walks in Beauty

You can hear several more of Byron's poems set to music at this site.

The music does, indeed, give a different kind of power to the poems. Byron wrote “She walks in beauty,” on seeing his cousin’s new wife at an evening event, wearing the black of mourning, looking beautiful and virtuous; Nathan matched that with a melody for “Lekha Dodi,” which envisions the Sabbath, arriving at evening, as a virtuous bride. Byron wrote “Oh Snatch’d Away in Beauty’s Bloom,” a mournful poem about the futility of mourning, which Nathan set to a meditative melody. “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” Byron’s dramatic retelling of 2 Kings 32-37, the miraculous plague that foils an invasion of Judah, pairs with Nathan’s dramatic music, reminiscent of Schubert’s uncanny “Erlking,” also written in 1815.

But then if it sounds so good, why did Nathan’s music disappear so completely? The paper sourced here claims anti-Semitism. Perhaps. 

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