Snapshot R. Nathaniel Dett Biography

“Those who have known Mr. Dett are familiar with his very candid, modest demeanor and lack of ostentation. His mind is peculiarly centered upon what he desires to accomplish rather than upon himself.”

Vintage sepia-toned portrait of R. Nathaniel Dett, featuring a young African American man in a formal dark suit with a tie. He has short hair and is looking directly at the camera with a calm and poised expression.
R. Nathaniel Dett, circa 1910

R. Nathaniel Dett was born on October 11, 1882, in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada, which is now part of Niagara Falls. His lineage was rooted in African-American ancestry, of enslaved people who escaped and fled north. This heritage later profoundly shaped his musical works.

Nathaniel’s parents both played musical instruments and sang. “I learned to play by ear, by listening to my mother,” Nathaniel would say. His mother was also one of Nathaniel’s early teachers. About her teaching style, he said,

“Mother’s method was simple and direct. She had me bring her a switch from a peach-tree which grew in our back yard and, after explaining the notes to me, said, ‘Play that note.’ If I didn’t play the right note, down came the switch on my fingers.

By the next lesson I knew all of the notes. I don’t recommend this method, but it was mightly effective with me.”

At fourteen, Nathaniel took a job as a bellhop in a hotel. The manager, who knew Nathaniel’s parents and the young boy’s musical talents and aspirations, gave him special privileges. 

“I never was required to be a regular bell boy. My special privilege was the use of a mammoth rosewood Chickering grand piano, which, though old, had an amazing tone which resounded through all the lower floors of the hotel. I used to play on this beautiful but antiquated instrument by the hour to the delight and sometimes amusement of the guests.”

In those years, Nathaniel was exposed to various musical influences, including classical Western compositions, African-American spirituals, and folk tunes. This rich tapestry of sounds was deeply influential, shaping his musical sensibilities and laying the foundation for his later works.

Nathaniel enrolled at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio for college. Oberlin was one of the oldest conservatories in the United States and a progressive institution with a long-standing tradition of admitting African-American students. Here, Nathaniel’s talent blossomed further as he was under the guidance and work of some of the finest musicians in his fellow students and professors. And it was also at Oberlin that he found inspiration to create music that more deeply connected with the spirituals he heard growing up.

“[T]he most vivid and far reaching memory I have of Oberlin was the result of a visit of the famous Kneisel String Quartet, who played as part of one of their programs a slow movement by Dvořák, based on traditional airs. Suddenly, it seemed I heard again the frail sweet voice of my long departed grandmother, calling across the years; and, in a rush of emotion which stirred my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me,” he wrote.

Nathaniel graduated from Oberlin in 1908 with a Bachelor of Music degree. He then pursued further studies, attending institutions such as the Eastman School of Music and Harvard University, where he had the opportunity to study under luminaries like the composer and music theorist Walter Piston.

Post his academic endeavors, Nathaniel went into teaching. In 1913, he took up a position at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a historically black institution. His tenure at Hampton was transformative, both for him and the institute. Nathaniel’s vision was clear; he wanted to elevate the status of African-American spirituals to the concert stage. With this in mind, he trained the Hampton Institute Choir, transforming them into a nationally recognized ensemble. Under his guidance, this choir toured the U.S., including a performance for President Hoover, and undertook a European tour, introducing audiences to the richness of African-American spirituals.

Nathaniel was deeply proud of the roots of his music and their importance. He wrote,

“In this country we are, musically, in much the same position as a man who owns a valuable mine. The fact that there are minerals in the ground, that he has that great supply of wealth stored up, will mean little to the owner unless he utilizes it. We have this wonderful store of folk music – the melodies of an enslaved people, who poured out their longings, their griefs and their aspirations in the one great, universal language. 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.” 

Nathaniel composed, performed, and conducted choirs throughout his life. He won many awards and received honorary degrees. 

On October 2, 1943, he passed away in Battle Creek, Michigan.

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