About R. Nathaniel Dett

There was poured into the astonished and delighted ears of the world an indigenous music, sung by its own creators, a music as fresh as the morning, as intimate as the breath and as vital as the heartbeat.
~ R. Nathaniel Dett

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)

Celebrated composer Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville (Niagara Falls), Ontario on October 11, 1882. He died on October 2, 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Dett studied piano as a child and was church organist in Niagara Falls, Ontario from 1898-1903. During this period he composed numerous works, including the well-known The Cake Walk and After the Cake Walk. Among his other works are Listen to the Lambs (1914), an eight-part anthem that was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Juba Dance (1913), a piano solo that has appeared in the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus and was a favourite of Dett’s friend, Percy Grainger; and the oratorio The Ordering of Moses (1937).

Dett earned several degrees at prestigious educational institutions, including Oberlin College (Bachelor of Music, 1908; Honourary Doctor of Music, 1926); Howard University (Honourary Doctor of Music, 1924); and the Eastman School of Music (Master of Music, 1932). Dett studied composition in Paris with the internationally renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, and performed at Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall. Dett also performed for two American presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dett was also in demand as a teacher, and held positions at Lane College, Jackson Mississippi, 1908-1911; Hampton Institute, Virginia, 1913-1932; Samuel Houston College, Austin, TX, 1935-1937; and Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, 1937-1942. Nathaniel Dett was dedicated to the cause of Black music, winning the Bowdoin and Frances Boott prizes in 1920 from Harvard University for his paper The Emancipation of Negro Music, and for his motet, “Don’t Be Weary, Traveller.”

Dett also explored and promoted Black music by editing collections of spirituals and folk songs, and was President of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1924 to 1926.