Nathaniel Dett

Canadian composer Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of the many black composers that found their way to Oberlin. He was a double major in piano (studying with Howard Handel Carter, who also taught Jessie Covington Dent, another Black prodigy) and theory-composition (studying with Arthur E. Heacox, George Carl Hastings, and the future teacher of William Grant Still, George Whitefield Andrews), He remained at Oberlin for five years, graduating with his B.M. degree in 1908 with honors. It was here he heard Dvořák's "American" quartet and was reminded of the spirituals his grandmother had sung to him in Canada. From this time, he was resolved to participate in the preservation of the spirituals although he had originally looked on them, as did others, as reminders of slavery times. He often spent his summers seeking additional education – at Columbia University, the American Conservatory of Music, Northwestern University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the 1919-1920 school year at Harvard University, a student of Arthur Foote, and the summer of 1929 he was at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau for study with Nadia Boulanger, as so many had before and after him. In 1918, Dett wrote of his compositional goals: “We have this wonderful store of folk music—the melodies of an enslaved people ... But this store will be of no value unless we utilize it, unless we treat it in such manner that it can be presented in choral form, in lyric and operatic works, in concertos and suites and salon music—unless our musical architects take the rough timber of Negro themes and fashion from it music which will prove that we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.”

Leave a comment