Robert Nathaniel Dett
• 1882 — 1943
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A prolific composer who specialized mainly in music for voice and for keyboard, R. Nathaniel Dett made his biggest impact as an educator. Dett was the first African American to receive a bachelor's in music from the Oberlin College Conservatory (in 1908), and he remained attached to one academy or another for most of the rest of his life.
Most of his work, necessarily, was at black American colleges. Her served successively at Lane College, Tennessee (1908--11), the Lincoln Institute, Missouri (1911--13), the Hampton Institute, Virginia (1913--32), and Bennett College, North Carolina (1937--42).
Dett's own education did not stop at Oberlin. He also did graduate work over the years at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Oberlin College, the University of Pennysylvania, and Harvard. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. For all this, he was eventually awarded a master's in music from Eastman in 1932; ironically, by this time he had already received honorary doctorates from Howard University and Oberlin. Dett also picked up many prizes along the way for his compositions; winning Harvard's Bowdoin Literary Prize brought him to the notice of philanthropist George Foster Peobody, who would sponsor much of Dett's work.
As an educator, Dett really made his mark at Hampton. He organized a town-and-gown choir that specialized in African-American sacred music and toured internationally. Dett wrote much original music for this group, and arranged many spirituals; these latter pieces drew some criticism for smoothing out and classical-izing music that should have had a more robust nature. Yet Dett's approach to spirituals was carried on by later generations of arrangers.
Dett also worked outside the academy as a pianist and organist, writing prolifically for those instruments (although most of his organ works went unpublished). The one piano work that kept his name alive in the decades following his death was the suite In the Bottoms, a musical depiction of African-American scenes. His style was conservative, sometimes resembling that of the Impressionistic period of Charles Tomlinson Griffes.
Dett believed that African-American music should be traced to its African roots. Some of his own most widely circulated works, though, found inspiration no farther back than the spiritual. His two biggest choral works were based on spirituals: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was the kernel of the motet Chariot Jubilee, and Go Down, Moses was the basis of the oratorio The Ordering of Moses.