Robert Nathaniel Dett is considered a pioneer, innovator, and trailblazer in American music. Dett was a Black American composer, pianist, organist, choral conductor, and music professor.
Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario on October 11, 1882. Dett’s birthplace is significant because Drummondville was an exit point for the Underground Railroad. At the age of three, Dett showed interest in the piano and started taking lessons by the age of 5. With Dett being the youngest of four children, and there being limited financial resources, the two older sons were given piano lessons. Dett recalls, “I played the piano ever since I can remember. No one taught me; I just ‘picked it up.’ I used to follow my two older brothers to the house of their teacher and sit, an interested spectator, while their lessons were in progress. On the rare occasions when the teacher happened to leave the room to get more music I would slide from my chair, fly to the piano stool, and play until warned by my brothers that ‘teacher’ was returning.” Just from sitting in lessons he would be able to play his brothers’ music by ear. The teacher happened to notice his gift one day and decided to offer Dett lessons for free. During his lessons Dett oftentimes chose to improvise music instead of playing what was written on the page. The teacher eventually had to get his mother to discipline him. This discipline was short lived, as he would continue to improvise anyway. We can look at this desire for creative freedom as the birth of his gift for composition.
In 1893, the Dett family moved to Niagara Falls, NY where they opened and operated a 17-room tourist home. Dett continued to study piano with an Austrian teacher, John Weiss. From 1901 to 1903, Dett studied piano at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory in Lockport, NY. Dett began to focus on technical advancement, which resulted in him giving his first serious piano recital. Playing pieces such as the Beethoven Sonata in F Major, Op.1, No. 2; the Chopin Nocturne in G Minor, Op. 37, No. 1, and several unpublished works that were composed by Dett himself at the age of nineteen. The success of this recital was a catalyst for Dett’s musical career.
In 1903, Dett went on to begin a five-year course study at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College in Ohio, majoring in piano and composition. Dett’s choice to study at Oberlin was wise due to the school’s racial commitment. Oberlin encouraged black students to enroll and sponsored and assisted in their careers after graduation. After Dett’s first year, he also received financial support from Frederic H. Golf, who heard him play in a benefit recital.
What is perhaps the most significant moment in Dett’s musical life was hearing music by Dvořák while at Oberlin. Dett heard Dvořák’s use of Bohemian folk song in his classical compositions, and also heard a string quartet perform Dvořák’s “American” quartet, Op. 96. The “American” quartet reminded Dett of Negro spirituals that his grandmother would sing. Dett recalled, “Suddenly it seemed I heard again the frail 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 such peace was revealed to me.” This inspired Dett to use Negro spirituals as thematic material in his compositions of art music throughout his life.
Toward the end of his time at Oberlin is when Dett began to achieve some of his trailblazing moments. Dett became the first black person to graduate from the Oberlin Conservatory’s five-year course. Dett’s wife, soprano Helen Elise Smith, who he married in 1916 was also a trailblazer herself, by being the first black graduate of the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts, which later became the Juilliard School.
After Dett’s graduation in 1908, he began his teaching career at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee that same year. His first few years at Lane College were very creative. In 1911, he published a book of his own poetry, The Album of the Heart. “In poetry as in music, Dett’s creativity was stimulated and excited always by external and philosophic ideas or emotional expressions. The beauty of Nature was among his favorite and most often used subjects.” A year later, he composed his first piano work called the Magnolia Suite, which is a collection of five short pieces in the Romantic style. Dett’s second important piano work was, In the Bottoms Suite. The piece Juba in this work is likely to be his most famous composition.
Dett’s trailblazing efforts did not stop there. In 1913, Dett became the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute. During his time there he founded the Hampton Choral Union, Musical Arts Society, Hampton Institute Choir and the school of music. Dett found his footing here as an educator and taught at Hampton for many years until 1932. In 1919, Dett composed a small oratorio for tenor solo and mixed voices with accompaniment of piano, organ, or orchestra called “The Chariot Jubilee.” This piece represents his first attempts at using the Negro spiritual as thematic material in a choral work. He also composed collections of Negro spirituals, such as Religious Folksongs of the Negro, and The Dett Collections of Negro Spirituals. He instilled racial pride by preserving and expanding the Negro spiritual. Turning the songs he heard his grandmother sing into written compositions, developing the spiritual into what would be considered a higher form. Also during his time at Hampton, he served as the president of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1924 to 1926.
On October 2, 1943, while traveling with the United Service Organization as a choral advisor, he died of a heart attack. R. Nathaniel Dett is remembered for paving the way for many African American artists and composers, and his musical innovations that strengthened the pride of African American culture. In 1917, Dett wrote, “I am a musician whose ambition in life is the advancement of my people, and who believes absolutely in equality of opportunity for all peoples, regardless of race, creed, or color, or previous condition of servitude.”
—Paul Grosvenor (Christie Finn, ed.)
This biographical essay is made possible because of the Song of America Initiative for African-American Classic Song, a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and Dr. Scott Piper’s Winter 2016 course “The Art Songs of African American Composers” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Brooks, Christopher. “R. Nathaniel Dett.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 6 July 2017.
McBrier, Vivian Flagg. R. Nathaniel Dett, His Life and Works, 1882—1943. Washington: Associated, 1977. Print.
Zick, William J. “R. Nathaniel Dett.” AfriClassical.com: African Heritage in Classical Music. Web. 6 July 2017.