Listen to R. Nathaniel Dett

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

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.

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.

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. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here:

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


February is Black History Month. Learn more about African-Canadian histories by exploring our online archives about R. Nathaniel Dett, Carrie Best, Ernest Melville DuPorte, William Hall, George Dixon, and the Experiences of Black Loyalists, among others, and check out entries about No 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., Kathleen ‘Kay’ Livingstone, and the Black Pioneers in British Columbia in the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations