(A more up-to-date version of this biography is available at afrovoices.com/robert-nathaniel-dett-biography)
R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
by Randye Jones
Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondsville, Ontario, Canada, on 11 October 1882. Part of a musical family, Dett was encouraged to study piano along with his two older brothers. After he and his family moved to Niagara Falls, New York, he continued his musical studies at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory. He played at several of the local churches and at a local hotel, where he worked as a bellboy:
One summer (c. 1897) when Dett was still at the Cataract Hotel, he was asked to move enough chairs into the opulent hotel parlor to accommodate an expected large audience who would hear bass singer Fred Butler in a recital. Dett had earlier been friends with Butler's younger brother in Sunday School, where Mr. Butler was the Sunday School superintendent. Despite the fact that Dett was proud that Fred Butler was returning to his native city for the concert, he vowed that he would not carry chairs again unless it was for his own concert. Why, he asked himself, should he not be able to do as much in music as Fred Butler? His vow concerning the chairs was indeed carried out, for later that same summer, at the urgence of the Country Club where Dett played, he set up the parlor for a recital of his own.1
A hotel patron who heard the young pianist perform sponsored Dett's attendance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. When Dett graduated in 1908, he became the first person of African descent to receive a bachelor of music degree in composition from the conservatory.
Although Dett had been exposed to Negro spirituals in his youth, his interest in this folk music was not awakened until his years at Oberlin:
But the most vivid and far reaching memory I have of Oberlin was the result of a visit of the famous Kneisel String Quartet who played as part of one of their programs a slow movement by Dvorak, based on traditional airs. Suddenly it seemed I heard again the frail sweet voice of my long departed grandmother, calling across the years; and, in a rush of emotion which stirred my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul peace was revealed to me.2
His interest in Black folk music was further encouraged by soprano and educator E. Azalia Hackley, who heard Dett perform at Hackley's music festival in 1908.
Throughout his life, Dett continued his musical studies, attending the American Conservatory of Music at Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University--where he received the Bowdoin Literary Prize in 1920 for his theses, Negro Music, and with Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau in Paris. He completed his master's studies in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in 1932 and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by Howard University in 1924 and Oberlin in 1926.
After teaching at Lane College, Jackson, Tennessee, and Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri, Dett began a nearly twenty-year association with the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. During this period, he composed works for piano, such as In the Bottoms, and for mixed choir. These compositions included collections of Negro spiritual settings, such as Religious Folk-songs of the Negro in 1927 and "Listen to the Lambs."
He took his Hampton Institute Choir on a 40-city tour of Europe in 1930 and to sites in the United States, including a performance at Constitution Hall eight years prior to the hall's controversial "white artists only" policy that led to Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial. The review in The Washington Post stated that, "This choir of young men and women students from the institute evinced mastery, not only of the spirituals and other songs of their race but in classic melodies and modern Russian numbers as well."3
One of his Hampton students, Dorothy Maynor, was a Dett protege who developed a significant career as a vocal soloist and as founder of the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City. Dett composed six settings for Maynor between 1940 and 1943, including "Ride On, Jesus," "I'm Goin' to Thank God," and "I'm A Trav'ling to the Grave."
Dett composed approximately 100 works for piano, orchestra, chorus, and solo voice. Among his many compositional and literary awards were the Francis Boott Prize for his work, "Don't Be Weary Traveler," and the Harmon Foundation Award for Creative Achievement in Music. He received a commission to compose music for the Rochester Centennial Celebration in 1934 as well as two symphonic commissions from the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). He explained his philosophy for composing using the folk songs of his ancestors:
Then again, though American White people appear to love these songs, seeming never to tire of listening to them, and are very persistent in urging the Negro to "stick to them," yet they apparently have never entertained the idea of the universal use of the songs for religious workship... It occurred to the writer that if a form of song were evolved which contained all the acceptable characteristics of Negro folk music and yet would compare favorably in poetic sentiment and musical expression with the best class of church music, it would be a means of solving this peculiar problem, for, being created out of native material, it would save to the Negro and his music all the peculiar and precious idioms, and as work of art would be as great to white people as to the colored people, while at the same time such composition would constitute the development of a natural resource.4
He also published a collection of poems, The Album of a Heart, in 1911. Dett wrote a second, unpublished collection, The Song of Seven, several additional poems, and numerous articles and essays.
This composer, pianist, director and educator was a charter member of the National Association of Negro Musicians and served as its president from 1924 until 1926. His final teaching position was as Director of Music at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina, from 1937 to 1942. In May 1937, Dett premiered his oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, for soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra. The work had been his master's thesis at the Eastman School.
R. Nathaniel Dett died of congestive heart failure on 2 October, 1943, in Battle Creek, Michigan, during an assignment as a musical advisor for the United Services Organization (USO). Among the legacies of Dett's contributions to the understanding and performance of Afrocentric music was the formation of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1998.
1Anne Key Simpson. Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett Composers of North America, no. 10. (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1993), 12.
2R. Nathaniel Dett, "From Bell Stand to Throne Room," from Etude 52 (February 1934:79-80. In The R. Nathaniel Reader: Essays on Black Sacred Music: A Special Issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology 5 (Fall 1991): 97.
3"Negro Choir Gives Program of Songs: Hampton Institute Group Shows Mastery of Melodies and Spirituals," The Washington Post, 22 March 1931, M10.
4R. Nathaniel Dett, "The Development of Negro Religious Music," from Negro Music. Bowdoin Literary Prize Theses. Harvard University, 1920. In The R. Nathaniel Reader: Essays on Black Sacred Music: A Special Issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology 5 (Fall 1991): 36.
Musical excerpt: "Ride On, Jesus," by Robert Nathaniel Dett. Excerpt from Ride On, King Jesus!. Recorded by Florence Quivar and Larry Woodward, November 20-22, 1989. Angel/EMI, 2005.
The author would like to acknowledge Burling Library, Grinnell College, for its donation of the brochures printed above.