Robert Nathaniel Dett

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Robert Nathaniel Dett
Robert Nathaniel Dett.jpg
BornOctober 11, 1882
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
DiedOctober 2, 1943
During a USO tour
Resting placeNiagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Pen nameR. Nathaniel Dett
OccupationComposer, choral director, organist, pianist

Robert Nathaniel Dett (October 11, 1882 – October 2, 1943), often known as R. Nathaniel Dett and Nathaniel Dett, was a composer, organist, pianist and music professor. While born in Canada, he spent most of his professional career in the United States. During his lifetime he was a leading Black composer, known for his use of African-American folk songs and spirituals as the basis for choral and piano compositions in the 19th century Romantic style of Classical music.[1]

He was among the first Black composers during the early years of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). His works often appeared among the programs of Will Marion Cook's New York Syncopated Orchestra. Dett performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Boston Symphony Hall as a pianist and choir director.[2]

Early life[edit]

Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario (now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario),[3] where he studied piano at an early age, showing initial interest when he was three years old and starting 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.[4] He studied at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music from 1901 to 1903.[5]

He 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 music; he heard the music of Antonín Dvořák which reminded him of the spirituals he had learned from his grandmother. He was the first black student to complete the five-year course at Oberlin. Dett toured as a concert pianist and during this period wrote only rudimentary piano compositions. He then came under the influence of Emma Azalia Hackley, a soprano singer, who inspired his interest in black American folk music.

In 1907, he completed his first degree, a Bachelor of Music with a major in composition and piano.


After graduation, Dett started teaching 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. 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.[6]


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 his high level of piano skills. On December 27, 1916, he married Helen Elise Smith— the first black graduate of the Institute of Musical Art, which became 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.[7][8]

Throughout his lifetime, Dett continued to study music. 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 association is the United States' oldest organization dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of African American music.

In 1929, he traveled to France to study at the Fontainebleau school of music with composer 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 choral works was 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 (USO) as a choral advisor to contribute to the war efforts. Traveling with the USO chorus, he died of a heart attack on October 2, 1943.[9] He was buried beside his wife as well as his two daughters, 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 Dett, who, from 1898 to 1903, was the organist at that church. The church was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2001.[10][11]


In the 2000s, Dett is remembered most for his work in combining the music in the style of the European Romantic composers with African-American spirituals. His music is still performed in the 2000s. Canada's Nathaniel Dett Chorale, founded in 1998, bears his name and performs his music as well as that of other composers of African descent.[12] 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.

In 1934 Dett, and/or his publisher, registered strong objections to saxophonist Frank Trumbauer's swing band adaptation of Juba Dance, from the suite In the Bottoms. Brunswick Records was compelled to withdraw the recording (#6763) from release.

Dett himself did very little recording. In 1912 he recorded five selections from Magnolia Suite for QRS piano rolls. These are believed to be the first commercial piano rolls ever made by a black pianist. In 1919 he recorded two selections for Broome Special Phonograph Records, "Mammy" from Magnolia Suite and "Barcarolle" from In the Bottoms. The latter can be found on the CD Lost Sounds, Archeophone ARCH 1005.[12]

In 1993 Anne Key Simpson published a biography of Dett, Follow Me: the Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett.[12]


Compositions and arrangements[edit]

  • Cave of the Winds (1902), march and two-step
  • Magnolia (1912)
  • In the Bottoms (1913), a "characteristic suite" of five movements[14]
  • Listen to the Lambs (1914), "a religious characteristic in the form of an anthem"
  • Music in the Mine (1916), a choral work
  • Eight Bible Vignettes
  • The Chariot Jubilee (1921), for tenor, chorus, and orchestra.
  • Enchantment (1922)
  • Let us cheer the weary traveler (1926)[15]
  • The Cinnamon Grove (1928)
  • The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (1936)
  • The Ordering of Moses (1937)
  • Tropic Winter (1938)
  • Eight Bible Vignettes (1941–1943)

In the Bottoms[edit]

In the Bottoms is a suite for piano composed by Robert Nathaniel Dett (subtitled "Suite caractéristique") in five movements, with the following titles:

  1. Prelude (Night)
  2. His Song
  3. Honey (Humoresque)
  4. Barcarolle (Morning)
  5. Dance (Juba)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Canadian Musical Works 1900-1980, a bibliography of general and analytical sources. Ottawa: Canadian Association of Music Libraries, 1983 (ISBN 978-0-9690583-2-8).
  2. ^ Elaine Keillor, Music in Canada, capturing landscape and diversity, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 1939 (ISBN 0773531777).
  3. ^ Ezra Schabas; Lotfi Mansouri; Stuart Hamilton; James Neufeld; Robert Popple; Walter Pitman; Holly Higgins Jonas; Michelle Labrèche-Larouche; Carl Morey (17 December 2013). Dundurn Performing Arts Library Bundle. Dundurn. pp. 398–. ISBN 978-1-4597-2401-3.
  4. ^ Natasha L. Henry (12 July 2010). Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada. Dundurn. pp. 248–. ISBN 978-1-77070-547-0.
  5. ^ Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition, 1997 (ISBN 0-393-97141-4).
  6. ^ Zick, William J. "Robert Nathaniel Dett: African American composer, pianist & choral director". Retrieved January 2, 2005.
  7. ^ Southern, p. 280.
  8. ^ Canadian Music Catalogues and Acquisitions lists. Toronto, 1971- Various lists of Canadian music (orchestral, vocal, chamber, choral)
  9. ^ "Nathaniel Dett". The Canadian Encyclopedia, by Helmut Kallmann
  10. ^ R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church[permanent dead link], Directory of Designations of National Historic Significance of Canada
  11. ^ R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church, National Register of Historic Places
  12. ^ a b c Tim Brooks (1 October 2010). Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. University of Illinois Press. pp. 488–492. ISBN 978-0-252-09063-9.
  13. ^ "Dett, Robert Nathaniel", in The Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1939), 1940 reprint, New York: Blue Ribbon Books.
  14. ^ Entry for Dett at
  15. ^ Wintz, Cary D.; Finkelman, Paul (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: A-J. Routledge. p. 302. ISBN 157958389X.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dett, R. Nathaniel (1936), The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals, in 4 books, Chicago: Hall & McCreary Company.
  • "Dett, Robert Nathaniel", in The

Dictionary of Musicians (1939), 1940 reprint, New York: Blue Ribbon Books.

External links[edit]