R. Nathaniel Dett

(1882–1943) During his lifetime he was a recognized composer and pianist,

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.  He was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin College (in 1908, with honors), where he heard the music of Antonín Dvořák, the great Czech composer, who had toured the United States and incorporated elements of American music in his own work, including the New World Symphony. Some of the music reminded Dett of the spirituals he had learned from his grandmother. “Dett had never been comfortable with the reminders of such a terrible time those songs brought,” notes Katherine Murley. “But

now he became determined to keep the memory of these songs alive, so they wouldn’t fade away.”

Having won his first audiences at the age fourteen occasionally playing the piano in the lobby of the hotel in Niagara, New York, where he had been hired as a bellhop, he was finally to win the attention of the larger world in 1914 at a pair of recitals he was invited to give in at the Samuel Taylor Coleridge Club of Chicago, where he performed his own compositions Magnolia and his suite of six pieces depicting life in the river flats of the deep South he had titled In The Bottoms. Of all the pieces presented on the “All Colored” program, said The Chicago Evening Post critic, Dett’s were “the most innovative.”

In “The Emancipation of Negro Music,” an article he contributed to the monthly illustrated magazine The Southern Workman founded in 1885 by Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Dett wrote: “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.”

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.17487. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org. Dett was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin. His oratorio was performed at Carnegie Hall.




Dett found a like-thinking companion in Helen Elise Smith, the first black graduate of the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art in New York, which would become known as the Juilliard School. The pair married in 1916.

Dett continued to further his own musical knowledge and skills at the American Conservatory of Music, Columbia University, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania, and, in 1920–21, Harvard, where he studied with Arthur Foote. While there he received two prizes: the Francis Boott Award for his choral composition Don’t Be Weary, Traveler, and the Bowdoin Prize for his essay “The Emancipation of Negro Music”; and the eminent British composer & pianist Percy Grainger recorded the “Juba” from Dett’s piano suite, In the Bottoms. (Both can be heard on Youtube.)`

His works often appeared on the programs of Will Marion Cook’s New York Syncopated Orchestra. Dett performed at Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall as a pianist and choir director. 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. The incident from the 1937 world premiere, when the broadcast was cut off by the NBC network during the performance, was re-created, using tapes of the announcer describing the work. There is no documented account of the reason for the interruption of the broadcast.

            A fervent promoter of other musicians, in 1919 Dett founded the Musical Arts Society, which presented concerts featuring such important black artists as baritone (and composer) Henry T. Burleigh, born the year after Lincoln’s assassination, who introduced his teacher Antonín Dvořák to black spirituals; composer and concert violinist Clarence Cameron White; lyric tenor and composer Roland Hayes, who in 1939—at the age of 52—would become the first African American to be recorded by a major label, Columbia Records, performing French, Italian and German art songs as opposed to just “black” material; and contralto Marian Anderson, who, in 1955, would become, at 58, the first African American singer to perform with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Dett was awarded honorary doctorates by Howard University (1924) and Oberlin (1926).

The website https://nathanieldett.org/, is dedicated to the appreciation, and promotion of performances, of this great body of work. Sheet music and scores available. See http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Name/R.-Nathaniel-Dett/Composer/3006-1; on his youth, https://kamurley.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/history-hunt-r-nathaniel-dett/.