Robert Nathaniel Dett

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R. Nathaniel Dett - My Cup Runneth Over

R. Nathaniel Dett 1882 - 1943

Spirituals were hymns and freedom songs sung by slaves.  They are now recognized as an important part of American history and music.  Spirituals are sung not only in churches, but also in concert halls.  The man who made Black spirituals world famous was Robert Nathaniel Dett, a well known choir leader, composer, piano player, and music teacher.

Dett was born in Ontario, Canada.  His parents, Robert and Charlotte Dett, were well educated people with musical talent.  Dett began playing the piano at age three.  He first learned of spirituals from his grandmother, who sang them often.

Dett received a very good musical education.  He took music lessons throughout his school years.  From 1901 to 1903, he attended the Halsted Conservatory of Music.  In 1908, he received a degree in music from Oberlin College in Ohio.

​At Oberlin, Dett heard the music of Antonin Dvorak, a famous composer from Czechoslovakia.  Dvorak had based his music on old folk tunes from his childhood.   Dett thought this music was very beautiful, and he was inspired to write Black music in a similar way.  He wrote more than 100 different musical pieces, often using tunes from spirituals and Black folk songs.  Dett also wrote many new spirituals.  Oh Holy Lord and Listen to the Lambs are just two of his spirituals that are still sung by choirs today.

In 1913,  Dett began teaching at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.  He taught there for 21 years.  One of his greatest achievements at Hampton was starting the Musical Arts Society, a famous choir group.  This choir traveled all over the world, singing many of the songs that Detts had written.  They also sang many spirituals written by others.

In 1916, Dett married Helen Smith of New York City.  His wife was an honor graduate of the Institute of Musical Arts and concert pianist.  The couple later had two daughters, Helen and Josephine.

In 1920, Dett took time off from his teaching at the Hampton Institute.  He went to Boston to further his studies at Harvard University.  At Harvard, he wrote an essay, The Emancipation of The Negro Music, which won an important award, the Bowdoin Prize.  He also won another prize for his choir music.

All of his life, Dett continued to study and teach music.  He studied at several different music schools in the United States and Europe.  In 1932, he earned a Master's Degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.  Dett also earned honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Howard University and Oberlin College.

From 1937 to 1942, Dett taught music at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  In 1943, he joined the USO, an organization that serves the armed forces of the United States.  Dett became musical advisor to the USO.  He also conducted choirs that sang at military camps.  Dett had a sudden heart attack while on assignment in Battle Creek, Michigan.  He died in Battle Creek on October 2, 1943.

Years later, in 1951 Detts opera, ​ The Ordering of Moses, was performed by the National Negro Company at Carnegie Hall.  The concert made Dett's music internationally known. His name and fame continues to be celebrated by choirs all over America and around the world.  They lift their voices in songs composed by R. Nathaniel Dett, and sing the Black spirituals that he loved so much.

Excerpt from A Gift of Heritage Historic Blacks in the Arts.

This is only a summary of the life of R. Nathaniel Detts.