How this son of refugees became one of the greatest classical composers of African descent

Emmanuel Kwarteng November 01, 2022
R. Nathaniel Dett. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

One of the many brilliant African-American musicians throughout history, Robert Nathaniel Dett was also a choir director, pianist, and author in addition to being a composer. Dett was born on October 11, 1882, in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada, now Niagara Falls—a  community established by runaway slaves from the United States before the American Civil War. Sources say his parents were both African- American refugees who had fled from the U.S. to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

According to a report by, Dett’s early experiences with classical music included listening to spirituals that his grandmother sang, playing the piano in church, and taking local piano lessons. During his career, he was celebrated as a composer and pianist, particularly for his 19th-century Romantic-style Classical works that drew inspiration from African-American folk melodies and spirituals. In 1908, he made history as the first African American to get a degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, the wrote about Dett. He won the Phi Beta Kappa honors.

Dett demonstrated a strong academic ability and throughout his life, he completed his formal education, including attending Harvard University, where his 1920 article “Negro Music” won a medal. He graduated with a Master of Music from Eastman in 1932. 

Dett’s lone collection of literature, The Album of the Heart, was released in 1911. Three years following his publication, he practiced the piano, went on tour as a concert pianist, and quickly won the praise of his critics.

Dett was exposed to the music of the great Czech composer Antonin Dvoák, who had visited the United States and integrated American musical influences into his own works, such as the New World Symphony. Those songs brought back memories of spirituals Dett had heard from his grandmother.

His early success came at the age of fourteen, when he was hired as a bellhop at a hotel in Niagara, New York, and began performing piano pieces for guests in the lobby. In 1914, he gave two recitals at Chicago’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge Club, where he debuted his works Magnolia and I Remember the River Flats, a suite of six pieces depicting life in the Deep South. 

According to a critic from The Chicago Evening Post, Dett’s performances were the most inventive of the “All Colored” program. As an activist for African folk music, Dett in the article “The Emancipation of Negro Music,” stated, “We have this great collection of folk music—the songs of slaves… But this store won’t be useful unless we use it and treat it in a way that makes it possible to use in choral works, songs and operas, concertos, suites, and salon music.”

From 1920–1921, Dett studied music at Harvard under Arthur Foote to better his career. His choral work “Don’t Be Weary, Traveler” won the Francis Boott Award, and his essay “The Emancipation of Negro Music” won the Bowdoin Prize, both of which he received while at Harvard.

BBC Philharmonic

Nearly eighty years after Dett’s passing, a newly unearthed symphonic work, described as “an absolute return to the music of West African slaves,” will be premiered for the first time by the BBC Philharmonic, the Guardian reported.

Magnolia Suite Part Two: No. 4 “Mammy,” which was recently uncovered, is an orchestral arrangement of a movement from Dett’s 1912 piano suite of the same name. The report added that the world premiere is scheduled for November 4, 2022, and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Nathaniel Dett Chorale

Canada’s first professional choral group devoted only to Afrocentric music, The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, performs a wide range of genres from classical to spiritual to gospel to jazz to folk and blues. 

Twenty-one of Canada’s finest technically trained vocalists make up The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, and they’ve performed alongside the likes of jazz pianist Joe Sealy (winner of a Juno) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. 

Since then, the Chorale has sung at tributes to Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Ali, and Oscar Peterson, among others, and was the only Canadian ensemble chosen to sing during the festivities surrounding President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration in January of 2009.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 1, 2022


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