About Nathaniel Dett

Robert Nathaniel Dett, c. 1920s

Robert Nathaniel Dett, c. 1920

This website is dedicated to the music of Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), one of history’s greatest musicians of African descent, to its appreciation, and to the promotion of performances of this great body of work.  A true polymath, Dett was a great composer, choir leader, pianist, teacher, poet, and writer.  During his lifetime, he was lauded as the first American composer to fuse Negro folk music with the European art music tradition in a sophisticated way.  As a seminal figure in the preservation and study of spirituals, both as a writer and choral leader, and as a great teacher and inspirer of African-American musicians in later generations, he is acknowledged to be one of the most important musicians in American history. Dett’s writings include The Emancipation of Negro Music, which won an important literary prize at Harvard University in 1920, and Album of the Heart, a volume of poems.  He was also deeply attracted to philosophical inquiry and involved with Rosicrucianism as well as Christianity.  He was also interested in other cultures; ancient Hebrew legends, African chants, and Hindu poets all have a place in his music.  Particularly toward the end of his life, Dett’s music expresses messages of human oneness, which speak to people now with the same meaning and urgency that it did in his time.  Through the efforts of Nathaniel Dett, what he called “Negro folk music” is a gift to the world. Dett was an extremely hard working personality, always driven to improve his craft by further study.  He was the first African-American to graduate from Oberlin College, one of the few unsegregated colleges at the time, with a double degree in piano and composition in 1908.  Even after being awarded honorary doctorates in music from Howard University in 1924 and Oberlin in 1926, he chose to enroll at the Eastman School of Music in 1931 to obtain a masters degree.  His life experiences ranged from bitter disappointments to great triumphs, all lived out within the segregated social environment of his time.

Cover to "In The Bottoms" sheet music from 1913

Cover to “In The Bottoms” sheet music from 1913

He grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario and later on the New York side, and was exposed to the piano at a very young age.  His early musical experiences were mostly with the light salon music of the day, now mostly forgotten, mixed with a scattering of classics.  His compositions as a teenager and young adult are in that style, reflecting the ragtime and dance music popular at the time.  After hearing the Kneisel Quartet perform a slow movement by Antonín Dvořák at Oberlin, Dett found his true calling, writing that “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.”  Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was also an important influence.  The enormous success of Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, had begun in 1898.  From then on, Dett composed music that used Negro folk idioms in a new way, striving for the highest goals of musical art.  He railed against ragtime influenced minstrel music, viewing it as a corruption of Negro folk music and reinforcing of racial stereotypes.  Dvořák’s challenge for American composers to use their own folk materials for the basis of musical creation found a wonderful answer in Nathaniel Dett’s music. Dett’s music includes many choral pieces in motet form including Listen to the Lambs, Holy Lord, Chariot Jubilee, a magnificent Ave Maria, and an oratorio, Ordering of Moses.  His piano music centers around the six suites for piano, including the romantic Magnolia, In the Bottoms (his most popular piano work which ends with the Juba Dance) and culminating with Eight Bible Vignettes, completed in the last year of his life. As work progresses, this site’s goal is to link with other information on Nathaniel Dett, including recordings, publications, research and performances.  Please feel free to submit comments by email to: comments@nathanieldett.org

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale singing “Ave Maria”