This Week in History
Listen to R. Nathaniel Dett
For the week of February 15, 2016
On February 18, 1924, R. (Robert) Nathaniel Dett performed three of his pieces for piano, “In the Bottoms Suite,” “Magnolia Suite,” and “Enchantment Suite” in St. Paul, Minnesota. A composer and teacher who wrote music for piano and choir, Dett's work continues to be performed and appreciated today.
Dett is perhaps most recognized for his choral arrangements, which were often inspired by African-American spirituals. By adding harmonies for a choir, he tried to make the spirituals more accessible for church congregations. In all, more than 200 of Dett’s pieces for choir, piano, and solo performance were published. Some of his most successful pieces are “Listen to the Lambs,” “Don’t Be Weary Traveller,” and “The Chariot Jubilee.” The piece, “Juba Dance,” was included in the piano syllabus of the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Dett was also acknowledged for his essays on African-American music. His collection of four essays, “Negro Music,” won the Bowdoin Prize from Harvard University. At the time of his death in 1943, Dett was the Chorale Director for the United Service Organisation. He was buried in Niagara Falls, Ontario. R. Nathaniel Dett’s music continues to be celebrated, and a notable Canadian chorale ensemble is named in his honour.
The church where Dett played the organ while growing up was named after him in 1983. The R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is designated as a National Historic Site for its role in the Black community; particularity for those who fled slavery in the United States. February is Black History Month! To learn more about African-Canadian musicians, read Breaking Down Racial Barriers through Music in the This Week in History archives.
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