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Listen to R. Nathaniel Dett

This story was originally published in 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.

Portrait of Nathaniel Dett
© Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Dett was born on October 11, 1882, in Drummondville, Ontario, which is now part of Niagara Falls. Of African-American descent, Dett took to music at a young age. In 1908, he earned a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin College in Ohio. He then taught piano and choir in Virginia at the Hampton Institute, where his Hampton Singers earned an international reputation. Dett was awarded two honorary doctorates of music, the first from Howard University in 1924, and the second from Oberlin College in 1926. He also completed a master’s degree from Eastman School of Music in 1932.

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.

R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church NHS
© Parks Canada

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 1938. 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; particularly 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.

Parks Canada launched This Week In History 20 years ago! Check out @ParksCanada and visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada website.

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