Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), one of history’s greatest musicians of African descent, was multi-talented, not only as a composer, but also as a 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 The Album of a Heart, a volume of poems. He was also deeply attracted to philosophical inquiry and was involved in Rosicrucianism as well as Christianity. His cultural interests were wide; 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 they did in his time.

Dett was the first person of African descent to graduate from Oberlin College, 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.

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 early compositions 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.” 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 shows, viewing them as a corruption of Negro folk music and a reinforcing of racial stereotypes. Dvořák’s challenge to American composers to use their own folk materials for the basis of musical creation found a wonderful answer in Nathaniel Dett’s music.

Besides his solo piano music, Dett’s works include many choral pieces in motet form such as Listen to the Lambs, Holy Lord, Chariot Jubilee, a magnificent Ave Maria, and an oratorio, Ordering of Moses.