Robert Nathaniel Dett (October 11, 1882 - October 2, 1943), often known as R. Nathaniel Dett, was a composer in the United States and Canada. During his lifetime he was one of the most successful black composers, known for his use of folk songs and spirituals for choral and piano compositions in the romantic style.
He was among the first Black composers during the early years of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His works often appeared among the programs of Will Marion Cook's New York Syncopated Orchestra. Dett himself performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Boston Symphony Hall as a pianist and choir director.
Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario (now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario), where he studied piano at an early age, showing initial interest when he was three years old and starting formal piano lessons at the age of five. He was the son of Charlotte Washington Dett and Robert T. Dett; his mother was a native of Drummondville and his father was from the United States. As a child, his mother encouraged him to memorize passages of Shakespeare, Longfellow and Tennyson. In 1893, the family moved to Niagara Falls, New York. At about age 14, he played piano for his local church. He continued his Lockport, New York studies at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music from 1901 to 1903.
He then continued his piano studies at the Lockport Conservatory, matriculating to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. It was at Oberlin when he was first introduced to the idea of using spirituals in classical style music; he was exposed to the music of Antonín Dvořák which was immediately reminiscent of the spirituals he had heard from his grandmother. He was the first black student to complete the five-year course at Oberlin. He then toured as a concert pianist and during this period he wrote only rudimentary piano compositions. He then came under the influence of E. Azalia Hackley, soprano, who inspired his interest in black American folk music.
In 1907, he completed his degree, a Bachelor of Music with a major in composition and piano. Within that year, he started at Tennessee's Lane College followed by a tenure at the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri. During this period, he wrote practical choral and piano pieces suitable for his students. The 1913 piece In the Bottoms contains one of his most played movements, "Dance Juba". Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler performed the work at the Chicago Music Hall with great success. Soon after this he became the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute in Virginia where he maintained the position from 1913 to 1932. During this near twenty-year period, he founded the Hampton Choral Union, Musical Arts Society, Hampton Institute Choir and School of Music. He encouraged his Hampton student, soprano Dorothy Maynor, to pursue a career as a concert artist; she followed his advice to become one of the leading concert artists in the nation.
His position as a major pianist-composer was earned in 1914. His piece Magnolia was performed at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Club. On June 3 that year he performed Magnolia and In the Bottoms. The Chicago Evening Post reported that among the works on the "All Colored" program, his works were the most innovative and complimented the high level of his pianistic skill. On December 27, 1916, he married Helen Elise Smith-- the first graduate of the Institute of Musical Art, now the Juilliard School of performing arts. In 1918, Dett wrote of his compositional goals:
We have this wonderful store of folk music--the melodies of an enslaved people ... But this store will be of no value unless we utilize it, unless we treat it in such manner that it can be presented in choral form, in lyric and operatic works, in concertos and suites and salon music--unless our musical architects take the rough timber of Negro themes and fashion from it music which will prove that we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.
Throughout his lifetime, Dett continued to study. Each summer, he attended major national institutions. From 1920 to 1921, he attended Harvard University, where he studied with Arthur Foote, winning two prizes. Don't Be Weary Traveler, a choral composition, won the Francis Boott Award while his essay "The Emancipation of Negro Music" won the Bowdoin Prize. His interest in composition continued to reflect the demands of teaching. Percy Grainger recorded the "Juba" from In the Bottoms during this period at Harvard. He composed collections of spirituals, which he had arranged, including Religious Folksongs of the Negro (1927) and The Dett Collections of Negro Spirituals (1936). Dett received a Holstein prize for his contributions as a composer.
From 1924 to 1926, Dett served as the president of The National Association of Negro Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1919, the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., is the country's oldest organization dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of the music of African Americans.
In 1929, he traveled to France to study at the Fontainebleau school of music with Nadia Boulanger and then earned a Masters of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music in 1932. In 1933 after resigning from the Hampton Institute, he served as the choral conductor for Stromberg-Carlson's NBC radio broadcasts. One of his most praised choral works was then written in 1937, the oratorio The Ordering of Moses. It was conducted by Eugene Goosens on May 7, 1937, with a chorus of 350 and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the Cincinnati May Festival. Dett's appointment as Visiting Director of Music at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, began in 1937 and continued until 1942. With this chorus he toured across Canada and the United States. They also performed on CBS radio broadcasts.
Late in his career, his style shifted from that of his earlier neo-romantic works as he adopted more contemporary idioms. In this later period he wrote piano suites such as American Ordering of Moses (1937), Tropic Winter (1938), and Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-1943) -- his final piano suite.
Dett joined the United Service Organization as a choral advisor to contribute to the war efforts. Traveling with this chorus, he died of a heart attack on October 2, 1943. He was survived by his wife as well as his two daughters. He was buried in the town of his birth at Niagara Falls, Ontario.
The Chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario, was named in honour of Robert Nathaniel Dett, who, from 1898 to 1903, was the Church organist. The church was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2001.
Robert Nathaniel Dett is remembered most for his work in combining the music of the European Romantics with the American spiritual. His music is still performed today. Canada's Nathaniel Dett Chorale bears his name and performs his music as well as that of other composers of African descent. The chorale is one of many that has recorded his music.
In 2014, his oratorio "The Ordering of Moses" was revived by the Cincinnati May Festival, and performed the same week in Music Hall in Cincinnati and at Carnegie Hall in New York. The incident from the world premiere in 1937, where the live broadcast was cut off by the NBC network during the performance, was re-created, using actual tapes of the announcer. There is no documentary evidence of the reason for the interruption of the broadcast, although it is considered likely to have occurred because of complaints received by the network from those objecting to the playing of music composed by an African-American.
Bowdoin prize (1921), for essay, The Emancipation of Negro Music,
Compositions and arrangements:
Cave of the Winds (1902), march and two-step,
In the Bottoms (1913), a "characteristic suite" of five movements,
Music in the Mine (1916), a choral work,
Eight Bible Vignettes,
The Chariot Jubilee (1921), for tenor, chorus, and orchestra.,
The Cinnamon Grove (1928)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license