R. Nathaniel Dett

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada (now, the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario), on October 11, 1882. During his childhood, Dett learned African American spirituals from his grandmother, while his mother helped him memorize Biblical passages and the poetry of William Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Dett was the first person of African descent to graduate from Oberlin Conservatory, earning a BM in piano and composition in 1908. He earned an MM from the Eastman School of Music in 1932. Dett also pursued education at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France, where he studied with the famed composer Nadia Boulanger, and at Harvard University, where he studied with Arthur Foote, a leading composer of American classical music. 

Though Dett published only one volume of poetry during his lifetime, The Album of a Heart (Publisher Unknown, 1911), he was primarily a composer of music who based much of his work on African American folk themes. His other publications include The Emancipation of Negro Music (Hampton Institute, 1918), which won a literary prize at Harvard in 1920, and the anthologies The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (Hall & McCrory Co., 1936) and Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro: As Sung at Hampton Institute (Hampton Institute Press, 1927), which he edited. Dett’s piano works and interpretations of African American spirituals have been collected over more recent decades. 

Dett served as the director of music at Hampton Institute (now, Hampton University) from 1913 to 1931. He helped to found the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919 and, at the end of his life, was the music director for the United Services Organizations (USO) in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Dett died in Battle Creek on October 2, 1943. He is buried in his hometown of Niagara Falls. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, which is named for him and based in Toronto, performs Afrocentric music of all types and is the first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music.