My Cup Runneth Over

CD: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

coverPiano: Clipper Erickson
Program Notes by Clipper Erickson and R. Nathaniel Dett

The piano suites embrace almost all of Dett’s creative life, from Magnolia, written soon after his graduation from Oberlin, to the Eight Bible Vignettes, written during the last two years of his life. They show a great development, variety and richness of style; truly reflecting his struggles, triumphs, and deepening philosophical interests.

The first two suites, Magnolia, and In the Bottoms, have strong roots in Romanticism and early Impressionism, but they have many rhythmic and melodic traits of the spirituals that were a great focus of Dett’s work. These suites are sets of images, some of nature, some of the social life of the people that Dett encountered during his first teaching appointments at historically black colleges in the American South.

Magnolia (1912)

Magnolia was written during his first academic appointment at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. It is light, youthful, and expresses a love of nature, similarly to The Album of a Heart, Dett’s book of poems written a year before. The movements are unified by either images of a geographical place or what Dett calls “racial peculiarities.”

“Magnolias” immediately shows Dett’s great lyric gift and was inspired by the trees on the college campus. Dett places the following lines at the beginning of the score:

“Gorgeous Magnolias,

Spotless in splendor,

Sad in their beauty,

Heavy with perfume.”

“The Deserted Cabin” and “Mammy” both feature a rhythmic grouping of pickups followed by an accented-short-long rhythm. This rhythmic trait also occurs in spirituals, such as in the verse of “Father Abraham,” which Dett sets in the first movement of Eight Bible Vignettes. Gloomy staccato chords complete the image of the cabin while the rhythmic group is transformed into flowing triplets over swaying chords in “Mammy,” suggesting a lullaby.

Interspersed between these two movements, “My Lady Love” and “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends,” are dance-like pieces. The first suggests a square dance, with a repeated note figure imitating fiddling accompanied by stride bass. Sudden modulations to distant keys hint at changing partners in set dancing. The finale is based on a poem of the same name by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first prominent African-American poets. This bubbly and sparkling piece expresses the optimism of the poem.

In the Bottoms (1913)

In the Bottoms is the best known of Dett’s piano works, partially due to its championing by Percy Grainger, the great Australian pianist. At the beginning of Dett’s own program notes is Beethoven’s remark about his Pastoral Symphony: “More an expression than a painting.” Dett’s use of pianistic color to evoke his images is remarkable.

Dett continues:

In the Bottoms is a Suite of five numbers giving pictures of moods or scenes peculiar to Negro life in the river bottoms of the Southern sections of North America. It is similar in its expression, and in a way a continuation of the sentiments already set forth in the Magnolia Suite, but suggests ideas incidental to life in a more particular geographic territory. Neither Suite, like Dvořák’s famous New World Symphony is dependent for its effect upon the introduction of folk songs, either in their natural, or in a highly developed form. As it is quite possible to describe the traits, habits and customs of a people without using the vernacular, so is it similarly possible to musically portray racial peculiarities without the use of national tunes or folk songs, In the Bottoms then, belongs to that class of music known as “Program music” or “music with a poetic basis.” The source of the “program” or “poetic basis” has already been referred to, and the following notes are appended to show that its relation to the music is intimate.

Prelude – is nightfall; the heavy chords represent the heavy shadows, and the open fifths, the peculiar hollow effect of the stillness: the syncopated melody which occurs, is the “tumming” of a banjo, which music is, however, only incidental to the gloom.

His Song – The psychological phenomenon is historic, that the moods of suppressed people have oftenest found their most touching expression in song. An aged Negro will sometimes sit for hours in the quiet of an evening, humming an improvised air, whose weird melody seems to strangely satisfy a nameless yearning of the heart.

Literally, “Honey” is a colloquialism – the familiar term of endearment (South). It may mean much, little, everything or nothing; the intimation here, is one of coquetry. It is after a poem, “A Negro Love Song” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The rhythmic figure, (opus font:) opus-font, which forms the theme of this Barcarolle is in reality, the rhythmic motif of the whole Suite; it is of most frequent occurrence in the music of the ante-bellum folk-dances, and its marked individuality has caused it to be much misused for purposes of caricature. Here it paints the pleasure of a sunshiny morning on the Father of Waters.

Dance – This is probably the most characteristic number of the Suite, as it portrays more of the social life of the people. “Juba” is the stamping on the ground with the foot and following it with two staccato pats of the hands in two-four time. At least one-third of the dancers keep time in this way, while the others dance. Sometimes all will combine together in order to urge on a solo dancer to more frantic (and at the same time more fantastic) endeavors. The orchestra usually consists of a single “fiddler,” perched high on a box or table; who, forgetful of self in the rather hilarious excitement of the hour, does the impossible in the way of double stopping and bowing.

The next two suites were written after a year of study with Arthur Foote at Harvard. Nepenthe and the Muse, dedicated to Foote, also dates from this period. Nepenthe was an anti-depressant drug mentioned in ancient Greek literature, which Dett evokes with his dreamy and hypnotic piece. Enchantment and Cinnamon Grove continue in the Romantic style but are more like sonatas than the earlier suites.

Enchantment (1922)

Dett’s third suite was dedicated to Percy Grainger “in appreciation.” It shows the influence of 19th century piano music, particularly that of Liszt and Grieg. Ethnic traits are still present, though; in the swaying motion of “Song of the Shrine,” and the rhythms of “Dance of Desire.” This movement is kind of folk version of the Bacchanale genre from the Romantic period, complete with thematic transformation of themes heard earlier.

The title page of Enchantment features a framed picture of a temple and an Egyptian symbol. Given the Rosicrucians’ strong involvement with Egyptology, these symbols, as well as Dett’s program and membership in the society, suggest a Rosicrucian connection, possibly an initiation.

Dett’s program:

“What seek you? Say! And what do you expect?”

“I know not what: the Unknown I would have!”

What’s known to me is endless; I would go

Beyond the end. The last word still is wanting.”


A soul obsessed by a desire for the unattainable, journeying on an endless quest, wanders into a pagan temple, and there yields to an overpowering impulse of the moment to utter an Incantation before the shrine of an unknown goddess.


From somewhere far within the shrine a mysterious voice answers – a

“voice of molten melody

Singing love that may not be.”


A drum beats, and a gong sounds; strange shapes assemble for a carnival of passion, into whose company and revelry the soul finds itself drawn irresistibly. In the urge of the music the Incantation mingles with the now mocking Song of the Shrine.

After a mad swirl, there is a final crash, at the sound of which the apparitions vanish.


And, as in a vision, the soul sees itself transfigured, appearing unto itself as an ever-shifting shoal of pale, opalescent fire, from which there rises in a visible exhalation, like smoke from smoldering incense, the still unsatisfied longing for the unattainable.

Cinnamon Grove (1928)

Cinnamon Grove reflects Dett’s poetic interests. The first three movements are prefaced by quotations while the fourth uses Negro spiritual melodies. The chosen poets reflect a wide knowledge and eclectic taste.

I           “Moderato molto grazioso, ma con moto”- on lines from “The Dream” by John Donne

Dear love, for nothing less than thee

Would I have broke this happy dream.

Dett’s piece is light with pianistic textures and harmonies reminiscent of early Debussy. It reflects the dream aspect of the poem but also suggests its hidden eroticism.

II         “Adagio cantabile”- on lines from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

When thou commandest me to sing

it seems that my heart would break

with pride; and I look to thy face,

and tears come to my eyes.

Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Tagore obviously was a poet close to Dett’s heart, inspiring one of his most beautiful and touching creations, forming the emotional climax of the suite.

III        “Ritmo moderato e con sentiment – Quasi Gavotte” – on lines from “Epimetheus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Have I dreamed? or was it real,

What I saw as in a vision.

When to marches hymeneal

In the land of the Ideal

Moved my thought o’er Fields Elysian?

Longfellow’s poem uses a repetitive meter, and an unvarying rhyme scheme. Dett reflects this quality with a hypnotic gavotte rhythm, which connects to the wedding (hymeneal) march in the poem. A dark reference to “Lady Love” also occurs.

IV        “Allegretto” – on lines from a song in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro

Oh, the winter’ll soon be over, children,

Yes, my Lord.

The final movement contains two spirituals from Dett’s 1927 volume of choral settings. Dett identifies the first one, “Oh, the winter’ll soon be over”, but not the second, “Run to Jesus;” one phrase of which occurs in the middle section. After the return of the first spiritual the conclusion gets more boisterous, suggesting increasingly excited children.

The final two suites employ more twentieth-century musical techniques such as parallel fifths and fourths; augmented, ninth and other complex chords; quartal harmonies; whole-tone scales and harmonies based on them; and above all, more counterpoint, especially in Eight Bible Vignettes. Dett experiments also with a great variety of pianistic textures, ranging from the thundering “Daybreak Charioteer” and opening of “Father Abraham,” to the minimalist “Noon Siesta,” and unaccompanied recitative in “Legend of the Atoll” and the text settings in Eight Bible Vignettes.

Tropic Winter (1938)

In a letter to Grainger, Dett writes of Tropic Winter, “I am rather proud of this suite, as I think it represents an advance in musical thought for me…” Indeed, it is the most experimental and varied in style of the suites, and some of the movements, such as “The Daybreak Charioteer,” ”A Bayou Garden,” and “Noon Siesta,” are more modernist than his earlier works. Others are more backward looking or have roots in popular music of the time, such as the marching band style in “Parade of the Jasmine Banners.” Dett returns to the concept of a suite unified by musical pictures; this time the images are of a more distant culture. His great lyric talent shines in “Legend of the Atoll,” returning to the sound of spirituals, and “To a Closed Casement.” These two pieces form the emotional center of the suite. Even in Dett’s most forward-looking music, melodic inspiration is central to his style.

Eight Bible Vignettes (1942-43)

Eight Bible Vignettes is the culmination of Dett’s style, outlook, philosophy, and life. The numerological meaning of eight, as meaning new beginning (the completion of seven plus one), is surely intentional. Each movement is related to a Biblical episode, four from the Old Testament; four from the New. Each group begins with a central character, Abraham (“Father Abraham”) and Jesus (“I Am the True Vine”). The second piece in each part presents a female character; Hagar and Martha. The third and fourth movements are personal expressions of love and despair. They mirror the final two movements which express reconciliation through belonging, using the image of the shepherd.

“Father Abraham” combines the Negro spiritual, “Father Abraham,” with the Hebrew melody, “Leoni,” using inversions and canons in a majestic, sermonic narrative. “Desert Interlude” depicts the story of Abraham’s slave, Hagar, in which Dett presents her as the matriarch of the Africans. This reference to the African diaspora is picked up in the seventh movement, “Other Sheep”, creating an arch form for the entire set. Dett quotes Genesis in the score:

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread

and a bottle of water, and

gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder and the child,

and sent her away. And

she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

Genesis 21:14

“As His Own Soul” is an intensely lyrical and richly textured piece.

And it came to pass….that the

soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and

Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

1 Samuel 18:1

“Barcarolle of Tears” is like a fantasia describing the suffering of the Jewish people followed by quiet redemption.

“I Am the True Vine” opens the New Testament section with a quiet, flowing fugue. The three voice texture, triple meter, and prominent augmented triad (dividing the octave into three equal parts) symbolize the Trinity.

“Martha Complained” depicts her monotonous drudgery of work and the world’s troubles, with an ostinato ground bass and blues-inflected melody. Dett then sets the exchange between Martha and Jesus:

“Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?

Bid her therefore come and help me, – bid her therefore come and help me.”

“Martha, Martha, Martha,

You are careful and troubled about many things:

But one thing is needful:

And Mary hath chosen that good part,

Which shall not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:40-42

The piece concludes with peaceful acceptance.

The final two form the climax and bring together Dett’s themes of harmony and reconciliation. “Other Sheep” is the longest and most complex. It begins with a setting of the following text:

And other sheep I have, which

are not of this fold: them also

I must bring, . . . . . . . . . .

John 10:16

An extended set of variations follows on an African chant that Dett heard a former pupil sing; “chosen because it seemed to possess a certain yearning quality suitable for the portrayal of the feelings of those who ‘longed for light’.” Following these is a terse sonata-allegro with coda. This unique structure, along with the powerful and sometimes percussive keyboard writing, sets this movement apart from almost everything else Dett wrote.

“Madrigal Divine” is a setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” serene and majestic, over a swaying ground bass evoking church bells, and closing with a long series of “amens.” It is a magnificent close to a body of work that eloquently expresses a life’s journey and hope for a better world.