Dett, R(obert) Nathaniel

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Dett, R(obert) Nathaniel

Dett, R(obert) Nathaniel, distinguished black American composer, conductor, and anthologist; b. Drummondville, Quebec, Oct. 11,1882; d. Battle Creek, Mich., Oct. 2,1943. He came from a musical family; both his parents were amateur pianists and singers. In 1893 the family moved to Niagara Falls, N.Y., where Dett studied piano with local teachers. He earned his living by playing at various clubs and hotels, then enrolled at the Oberlin (Ohio) Cons., where he studied piano with Howard Handel Carter and theory with Arthur E. Heacox and George Carl Hastings (B.Mus., 1908). He also conducted a school choir; eventually, choral conducting became his principal profession. He taught at Lane Coll. in Jackson, Term. (1908–11), the Lincoln Inst. in Jefferson, Mo. (1911–13), the Hampton Inst. in Va. (1913–32), and Bennett Coll. in Greensboro, N.C. (1937–42). Concerned about his lack of technical knowledge in music, he took lessons with Karl Gehrkens at Oberlin in 1913; also attended classes at Columbia Univ., the American Cons, of Music in Chicago, Northwestern Univ., the Univ. of Pa., and, during the academic year 1919–20, at Harvard Univ., where he studied composition with Foote. In 1929 he pursued training with Boulanger at the American Cons, in Fontainebleau; during 1931–32, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. (M.Mus., 1932). In the meantime, he developed the Hampton Choir, which toured in Europe in 1930 with excellent success, receiving encomiums in England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. He also periodically led his choir on the radio; in 1943 he became a musical adviser for the USO, and worked with the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) on service duty at Battle Creek. His dominating interest was in cultivating Negro music, arranging Negro spirituals, and publishing collections of Negro folk songs. All of his works were inspired by black melodies and rhythms; some of his piano pieces in the Negro idiom became quite popular, among them the suite Magnolia (1912), In the Bottoms (1913), which contained the rousing Juba Dance, and Enchantment (1922). He also wrote a number of choral pieces, mostly on biblical themes, such as the oratorios The Chariot Jubilee (1921) and The Ordering of Moses (Cincinnati, May 7, 1937). His choruses Listen to the lambs, I’ll never turn back no more, and Don’t be weary, traveler became standards in the choral repertoire. He publ. the anthologies Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (1926) and The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (4 vols., 1936). His piano compositions were ed by D.-R. de Lerma and V. McBrier (Evanston, 111., 1973).


V. McBrier, R.N. D.: His Life and Works: 1882–1943 (Washington, D.C., 1977); A. Simpson, Follow Me: The Life and Music ofR.N. D. (Metuchen, N.J., 1993).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire