Robert Nathaniel Dett: a poetic soul striving for greatness
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is acknowledged as one of history’s greatest musicians of African descent. He was consistently devoted to improving his craft as a composer: after receiving a master’s degree at Eastman School of Music he continued his studies at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Columbia University, Northwestern University, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and The American School at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger.
His talents were many and far-reaching. Dett excelled on piano and organ. He composed over 100 works. He conducted across the country and internationally with his university choirs. He published a book of poetry in 1911 and won the Bowdoin award from Harvard for his essay, “The Emancipation of Negro Music” in 1920.
Reviewers from his concerts described that his playing “radiates inspiration,” and incorporated “elements of poet and musician, for he is both.”
As for Dett the composer, his work “reflects a great humanitarian, with lofty ideas about reconciliation and the unity of humankind… [his] music is an expression of his personality, his dignity, his playfulness, his sorrows, his triumphs, and his hopes for a better world.”
I’m grateful that this article gave me the opportunity to learn more about an incredible musician that lived his life by an altruistic code while creating art to match.
R. Nathaniel Dett was born in present day Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1882. Although Canadian-born, his father and maternal grandparents were American and the majority of Dett's career was spent in the United States. Growing up, his family was artistically gifted, playing piano, singing, and reciting poetry from greats like Tennyson and Shakespeare. His grandmother would sing spirituals to them, an influence that would later become important.4
From an early age Dr. Dett showed great musical prowess. He learned everything his older siblings played on the piano by ear and could perform them and also improvise. He studied piano at the music conservatory in Lockport, New York and would later become the first black graduate of Oberlin Conservatory’s bachelor of music program where he studied piano and composition. Dett toured as a concert pianist and was expected to go off to an illustrious career in Europe, but instead became a professor of music at Lane College in Tennessee, and the Lincoln Institute in Missouri. His time at these institutions was foundational as Dett learned more about the demands of teaching and was inspired to give back to his students by writing choral pieces that integrated folk songs and spirituals.
His encounter with Madame E. Azalia Hackley – a singer famous for performing spirituals and a financial supporter of black musicians’ careers – influenced him to become the Director of Music at the Hampton Institute in 1913.5 Over the next two decades, Dett would promote the reputation of the Hampton Institute by promoting their choir, The Hampton Singers, by touring nationally and across Europe under his baton. Their programs would incorporate Russian choral works, other modern and classical works and spirituals. This prominent choir was the first student group invited to sing at the Library of Congress. On their extremely successful European tour they sang before the Queen of Belgium, a crowd at Royal Albert Hall that demanded 45 minutes of encores, and a Viennese audience which refused to leave until the lights were extinguished.
“We have this wonderful store of folk music.…This 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.”7
This statement, published in Musical America in 1918 by Dett, illustrates his philosophy behind some of his compositions, “that through the development of the Negro song into art forms, racial pride and personal dignity could be inspired.” Even more clearly is this illustrated in his compositional style.
He is best remembered for his piano works and choral arrangements. As a pianist, I discovered him through his earlier piano suite, In The Bottoms. The final movement of this character piece, “Juba (Dance),” is best known as an encore piece and it’s exuberantly fun. However, I was more intrigued by the first and fourth movements, “Prelude” and “Morning,” respectively. “Morning” is characteristically sleepy. The gentle rocking of this barcarole represents the gradual process of waking. The melody is spritely and definitely a ‘morning person.’ This entire suite has wonderfully romantic elements and reminds me of works by Chopin, Debussy, Poulenc, and Amy Cheney Beach. It is worth noting Dett wrote five other piano suites: Magnolia, Enchantment, Cinnamon Grove, Tropic Winter, Eight Bible Vignettes.
His most dramatic work is his oratorio The Ordering of Moses for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone soloists. The spiritual “Go Down Moses” is featured prominently. He goes as far as using it as the subject of a fugue for the chorus. I cannot recommend highly enough this recording of James Conlon, the May Festival Chorus, Latonia Moore, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Rodrick Dixon, Donnie Ray Albert, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performing at Carnegie Hall. It’s truly incredible. After hearing this recording I was deeply saddened that R. Nathaniel Dett was unable to write more of this exciting genre as his ability for orchestration and choral writing is exquisite.
If there’s anything I can leave you with today, may it be this: trying to sum up a prolific polymath’s life in a few short paragraphs is a grave injustice. All of his accomplishments speak volumes as each was more ground-breaking than the last.
While R. Nathaniel Dett’s name and music may not be as commonplace as I believe they should be in the American academic field or concert halls, I hope you can bring his compositions into your life (and/or recitals), share his enchanting work, and be inspired to strive for greatness.
Links to recordings:
Dorothy Maynor singing I'm Goin' to Tell God All My Troubles
(My favorite movement): No. 11, The Egyptians Pursue
*BONUS* brass arrangement of Morning, transcribed by Jasmine Pigott and performed by members of the COVID 19 Black All-Star Tuba Euphonium ensemble: click here
1. Johnson, A.H., “March 1925”, Cheney Record, Cheney, PA. R. Nathaniel Dett Collection at Niagara Falls New York Public Library, cat. no. 1-299
2. Robert Kerlin, Negro Poets and Their Poems, quoted in Simpson’s Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, p. 356, found in Erickson, p. 29
3. Erickson, C. (2014). The Six Piano Suites of Nathaniel Dett (Doctoral dissertation, Temple University, 2014) (pp. 180-181). Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC. https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/pubnum/3623149.html?FMT=AI
4. - 6. Dett, R. Nathaniel. "From Bell Stand to Throne Room: A Remarkable Autobiographical Interview with the Eminently Successful American Negro Composer." The Black Perspective in Music 1, no. 1 (1973): 73-81. Accessed February 2, 2021. doi:10.2307/1214129.
7. Warfield, William. "The Keynote Address." The Black Perspective in Music 14, no. 1 (1986): 7-12. Accessed February 2, 2021. doi:10.2307/1214724.
8. McBrier, Vivian Flagg. R. Nathaniel Dett, His Life and Works, 1882-1943. (Washington, D.C.): Associated Publishers, 1977: p. 47