Nathaniel Dett

(Robert) Nathaniel Dett. Composer, educator, pianist, b Drummondville (now Niagara Falls), Ont, 11 Oct 1882, d Battle Creek, Mich, 2 Oct 1943; B MUS (Oberlin) 1908, honorary D MUS (Harvard) 1924, M MUS (Oberlin) 1926, M MUS (ESM, Rochester) 1932.
(Robert) Nathaniel Dett. Composer, educator, pianist, b Drummondville (now Niagara Falls), Ont, 11 Oct 1882, d Battle Creek, Mich, 2 Oct 1943; B MUS (Oberlin) 1908, honorary D MUS (Harvard) 1924, M MUS (Oberlin) 1926, M MUS (ESM, Rochester) 1932. Many reference works mistakenly give Drummondville, Que, as his birthplace. He studied piano as a child and was a church organist 1898-1903 in Niagara Falls, Ont, where he composed After the Cakewalk - March-Cakewalk in 1900. His formal studies were in the USA. He gave recitals in Canada in 1925 and later studied piano with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He performed in the USA at Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and before presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He worked as a piano teacher and choir director 1908-11 at Lane College, Jackson, Tenn, and taught 1913-32 at the Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va, 1935-7 at Samuel Houston College, Austin, Tex, and 1937-42 at Bennett College, Greensboro, NC. As director of the Hampton Choir he toured Europe in 1930. He was chairman of the advisory board 1919-24 and president 1924-6 of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Prior to his death he directed musical activities for the United Service Organization, designed to build US armed forces' morale.

Dett was dedicated to the cause of black music in America and in 1920 won the Bowdoin and Francis Boott prizes from Harvard U for a series of four articles titled 'Negro music' and for the motet 'Don't Be Weary, Traveller' (J. Church 1921) based on a Negro folk motive. He was awarded the Harmon Medal in 1927, the Palm and Ribbon of the Royal Belgian Band, and several literary prizes. He edited collections of spirituals and folksongs and composed motets, anthems, songs, and 6 piano suites characterized by the melodies and rhythms of black folk music. His works include the oratorios The Chariot Jubilee (1921) and Ordering of Moses (J. Fischer 1937) and the piano pieces The Magnolia Suite (C.F. Summy 1912), In the Bottoms Suite (ibid 1913), which contains the popular 'Juba Dance' (a favourite of his friend Percy Grainger), Enchantment Suite (1922), Cinnamon Grove Suite (1927), and Tropic Winter Suite (1938). The last movement of a symphony commissioned by CBS radio was not completed. Four of his arrangements of spirituals have been reprinted in CMH, vol 5. A few recordings are given in Roll Back the Years. 'Listen to the Lambs' was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Col ML-5048). He discovered and helped to develop the careers of several singers, among them the soprano Dorothy Maynor. The Dr. Nathaniel Dett Memorial Award has been established to honour a musician of stature who has contributed to the musical development of youth. A substantial collection of his published sheet music is held at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard U, Washington, DC. Arlene E. Gray has compiled a source book (see Bibliography) of the Dett materials in the Niagara Falls (NY) Public Library.


- ed. The Dett Collection of Negro Spirtuals, 4 vols (Hall & McCrean 1936)

- ed. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Associate in Music Press 1972)

The Collected Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett (Summy-Birchard 1973)


R. Nathaniel Dett, 'The emancipation of negro music,' Southern Workman, vol 47, 1918

'Negro music of the present,' ibid

'From bell stand to throne room,' Etude, Feb 1934

The Development of the Negro Spiritual (Minneapolis 1936)

Further Reading

  • Stanley, May. 'R. Nathaniel Dett, Hampton Institute,' Musical America, July 1918; repr in The Black Perspective in Music, vol 1, Spring 1973

    'Leading negro choir's European visit,' MT, 1 May 1930

    Pope, M. A Brief Biography of Dr. Robert Nathaniel Dett (Hampton, Va, 1945)

    McBrier, V.F. 'The life and works of Robert Nathaniel Dett,' PH D thesis, Catholic U of America 1967

    Spencer, Jon Michael. 'R. Nathaniel Dett's views on the preservation of black music,' The Black Perspective in Music, vol 10, Fall 1982

    Gray, Arlene E. Listen to the Lambs (Crystal Beach, Ont 1984)

    MGG Supplement, vol 15, 1973

    The New Grove Dictionary

External Links