Wednesday, December 23, 2015

R. Nathaniel Dett: 'My Cup Runneth Over' does a great service to the listening public by making R. Nathaniel Dett's published piano works available on 2 CDs

 R. Nathaniel Dett: MY CUP RUNNETH OVER
Navona Records NV 6013 (2015)

 is profiled at AfriClassical.comwhich 
features a comprehensive Works List 
and a Bibliography by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, 

Pianist Clipper Erickson has recorded a 2-CD set, R. Nathaniel Dett: My Cup Runneth Over, The Complete Piano Works.  This recording has truly been a labor of love, painstakingly produced in Germany.  The discs are documented in a lavish set of liner notes by both the pianist and the composer.  Clipper Erickson begins with this observation: 

"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, are strongly rooted in Romanticism and early Impressionism, but have many rhythmic and melodic traits of the spirituals that were a great focus of Dett's work."  The late Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma writes of the composer's five years at Oberlin College: "It was here he heard Dvořák's 'American' quartet (op. 96) and was reminded, not of Bohemia, but of the spirituals his grandmother had sung to him in Canada."  Dett was born in Canada, but his family moved across the U.S. border into Niagara Falls, New York to operate a tourist home during his youth.
The pianist tells us Magnolia appeared while the composer held his first faculty position, at Lane College, Jackson, Tennessee.  At 19:47, the work is the longest on Disc One, and occupies Tracks 1-5.  Next is In the Bottoms (1913), on Tracks 6-10.  Erickson writes of the piece: 

"In the Bottoms is the best known of Dett's piano works, partially due to its championing by Percy Grainger, the great Australian pianist."  The pianist adds: "Dett's use of pianistic color to evoke his images is remarkable."  Dett himself writes: "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."  Each number has a title: 1. Prelude-Night  2. His Song  3. Honey  4. Barcarolle - Morning  5. Dance - Juba.

Enchantment, on Tracks 11-14is a composition from 1922; its time is 18:50. The pianist writes: "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.'"  The four movements are 1. Incantation  2. Song of the Shrine  3. Dance of Desire  4. Beyond the Dream. 

Enchantment is dedicated to Arthur Foote, with whom Dett studied at Harvard for a year according to the pianist, who tells us Nepenthe and the Muse, another piece from 1922 which is found on Track 15, is also dedicated to Foote.

Cinnamon Grove is on Tracks 16-19.  It was written in 1928 and has a time of 17:40.  Erickson writes: "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."

We were introduced to Cinnamon Grove by Merwin Siu, violin, and Phoenix Park-Kim, piano, on their 2011 CD Deep River: Music for Violin and Piano by Composers of African Descent, MSR Classics  MS 1372.  It was a real pleasure to find the work on the present recording by Clipper Erickson.

Movement I quotes "The Dream" by John Donne.  II is from Gitanjali by Rabindrath Tagore.  III uses lines from "Epimetheus" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  IV is based "on lines from a song in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro."

Disc Two opens with a 1938 composition, Tropic Winter, which fills Tracks 1-7 and dominates the disc with a time of 37:45.  The pianist writes: "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."

On Tracks 8-15 we find Eight Bible Vignettes, composed from 1941-43, with a time of 21:47.  The pianist writes: "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.

Track 16 is After the Cakewalk, a work from 1900 whose length is 3:29.  Cave of the Winds is a 1902 composition found on Track 17, with a time of 3:01. Inspiration Waltzes, written in 1903, has a time of 6:08.

My Cup Runneth Over does a great service to the listening public by making the entirety of R. Nathaniel Dett's published piano works available on a set of recordings for the first time.  The composer gave a good deal of thought to the piano suites in particular.  We have not only found the Navona Records release to be a keepsake, but we have already used it as a gift as well.

Comments by email:

1) Thanks for putting this article up!  The release has been getting some airplay around the US and Canada.  I'm hopeful that this will be the beginning of a new appreciation of Dett and his taking a rightful place among the greatest American composers.  More than anyone, he was the realization of Dvorak's challenge to American composers to find their own voice using our ethnic musical heritage.
Have a wonderful holiday and New Year!  All best,  Clipper [Clipper Erickson]

2) Hi William,  I hope you had a nice Holiday. Thank you for sharing your most recent post concerning the Navona release MY CUP RUNNETH OVER - it reads great! We are happy to share this post on PARMA's social media channels. Once again, thank you for your continued support and consideration. Please have a terrific New Years!  Best,  Morgan  Morgan MacLeod                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

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