Dett founds legacy of black classical music

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Robert Nathaniel Dett

Da Eun Kim

Think the only black musicians are rappers and reggae artists? Nathaniel Dett breaks the mold

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario in 1882. A talented pianist at a young age, he went to New York to study at 19. After being introduced to music by the popular Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, Dett explored the idea of taking traditional spirituals and converting them to classical music.

As the first black student to graduate from his school, he toured as a concert pianist â€" yet his love for composition and black folk music began to grow.

Dett became a professor of piano at Lane College in Tennessee, where he composd pieces suitable for his students, as well as some choral pieces. Soon his pieces were being performed at prestigious concert halls such as the Chicago Music Hall.

Shortly after his time at Lane College, he became the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where his career continued to flourish. He founded the Hampton Choral Union, Musical Arts Society, Hampton Institute Choir and School of Music.

One of his most talented students, a soprano called Dorothy Maynor, became one of the most popular concert sopranos in the country under Dett’s encouragement.

Dett’s music continued to win praise, and he soon become one of the most talented composers of his time.

Dett strove to prove that the black community did ‘have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.’ He became well known for his unique ability to take Negro folk songs and spirituals and transform them into full piano and choral works, respected by white classical musicians of the time.

Dett continued to better his work by studying at different institutions each summer, including Harvard University. He won many awards for his compositions, as well as academic papers on topics like ‘The Emancipation of Negro Music.’

In 1924, he became the president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Dett was also one of the first African-American members of the American Society of Composers. He later earned a Master’s degree at the prestigious Eastman School of Music.

Late in his career, Dett continued to compose and tour â€" notable performances include those at Carnegie Hall and the Boston Symphony, as a pianist and conductor respectively.

His legacy stays with us to this day â€" the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, based in Toronto, performs music from composers of African descent, including that of Dett. We celebrate Dett as a pioneer in the world of American classical music, as one of the most successful black composers of his time.

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