Nathaniel Dett

1882 - 1943


Nathaniel Dett (1882 -1943), one of history’s greatest musicians of African descent, was multi-talented, not only as a composer, but also as a choir leader, pianist, teacher, poet, and writer. During his lifetime, he was lauded as the first American composer to fuse Negro folk music with the European art music tradition in a sophisticated way. As a seminal figure in the preservation and study of spirituals, both as a writer and choral leader, and as a great teacher and inspirer of African-American musicians in later generations, he is acknowledged to be one of the most important musicians in American history. He grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario and later on the New York side, and was exposed to the piano at a very young age. His early musical experiences were mostly with the light salon music of the day, now mostly forgotten, mixed with a scattering of classics. Dett was the first person of African descent to graduate from Oberlin College, with a double degree in piano and composition in 1908. It was there, after hearing a movement by Antonín Dvorak, he was compelled to compose music that used Negro folk idioms in a new way, striving for the highest goals of musical art.  After being awarded honorary doctorates in music from Howard University in 1924 and Oberlin in 1926, he chose to enroll at the Eastman School of Music in 1931 to obtain a Masters Degree. During his education, Dett studied with Oliver Willis, Arthur Foote, and Nadia Boulanger. Dett's most important work began in 1913 at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He trained the choir at that traditionally African-American school to a new level of musical excellence. His 40-voice Hampton Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in January 1914. Dett rose to the position of director of the Music Department at Hampton in 1926, the first black to hold that job. That same year, Oberlin Conservatory awarded Dett an honorary Doctor of Music degree, another first for an African American. On December 17, 1926, the 80-voice Hampton Choir assumed national prominence as it performed by invitation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. After earning his master's degree in 1932, Dett resigned from Hampton and moved to Rochester, New York. In 1973 his piano works were collected and published as a volume. Dett’s writings include The Emancipation of Negro Music, which won an important literary prize at Harvard University in 1920, and Album of the Heart, a volume of poems. He published some 100 compositions, principally piano, vocal, and choral works. His major works for chorus include Chariot Jubilee, an extended motet, and The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio.

(source: ;