Saturday, October 10, 2009

R. Nathaniel Dett, African American Composer, Pianist & Choral Director Born Oct. 11, 1882

[R. Nathaniel Dett; Photo from Library of Congress]

R. Nathaniel
Dett's works for solo piano include Cinnamon Grove, S. 12, suite for piano (1928). Phoenix Park-Kim is Assistant Professor of Piano at Indiana Wesleyan University. In 2008 she provided with an audio file of the premiere recording of the “First Movement” (4:11), Moderato molto grazioso, as a preview of a future CD of works of African American composers. Prof. Park-Kim and violinist Merwin Siu of the Toledo Symphony performed it as part of “Live From FM 91: Music of African American Composers,” and it can be heard online, as posted on AfriClassical on July 2, 2009.

R. Nathaniel Dett was an African American composer and pianist whose tenure as Choral Director at Hampton Institute was legendary. He was born in Drummondville, now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Dominique-René de Lerma is Professor of Music at Lawrence University and has specialized in African heritage in classical music for four decades. He has kindly made his research file on R. Nathaniel Dett available to At age five, Dett was playing pieces by ear. He then began piano lessons. Dett and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, settling in Niagara Falls, New York, where they ran a tourist home. Prof De Lerma writes: “Dett continued his piano lessons, now with John Weiss and then with Oliver Willis Halstead (1901 to 1903), who ran a conservatory in Lockport.”

In 1903 Dett began his studies at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After the first year, a benefactor paid his costs at the school. We learn from Prof. De Lerma that Dett majored in both piano and composition. It was at Oberlin that he first heard Dvorak's use of Bohemian folk song in classical music. Dr. De Lerma writes: “From this time, he was resolved to participate in the preservation of the spirituals although he had originally looked on them, as did others, as reminders of slavery times.” “When Dett completed his five-year course at Oberlin in 1908, he became the first African American to earn a B.A. in Music there with a major in composition and piano.” “He immediately began teaching, first at Lane College (Jackson, Tennessee) until 1911, when he moved to Lincoln Institute (now University) in Jefferson City, Missouri, and then in 1913 to Hampton Institute (now University) as director of the music program.

Dett died in Battle Creek, Michigan while touring with a Women's Army Corps chorus as a member of the U.S.O. As a composer, Dett is remembered chiefly for the choral works he based on African American spirituals, and for the works for solo piano he composed in the Romantic style. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale of Toronto, whose Artistic Director is Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, is Canada's first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of various genres. Its recordings are available at music websites.

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