Dett composed vocal works based on African American spirituals, as well as works for solo piano in a 19th century Romantic style. Works include "Magnolia", "In the Bottoms", "The Chariot Jubilee", "Don’t Be Weary, Traveler", "The Ordering of Moses", "Eight Bible Vignettes", "Deserted Cabin", "My Lady Love", "Mammy" and "The Place Where The Rainbow Ends".
R. Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondsville, an area which is now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882. The boy and his family moved to Niagara Falls, New York, U.S.A. in 1893. Dett was musically precocious, playing the piano from age 3. He began piano lessons at age 5, and by age 14 he was playing the piano at church. Dett studied at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music in Lockport, New York from 1901 until 1903, when he enrolled in Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.
Dett was the first African American to complete a 5-year course at Oberlin which led to a B.A. in Music with a major in composition and piano. While at Oberlin, Dett realized that he could use the spirituals he knew from childhood in art music compositions. That set his course as a composer. Two concerts in 1914 helped launch his career as a major composer and pianist. At the first he perfomred his piano work "Magnolia". At the second he performed that piece and "In the Bottoms", which a Chicago music critic described as the most original works on the program. Dett was also a port, and published a book of poems called "The Album of the Heart" in 1911.
For most of his career, Dett taught at various colleges, most famously at Hampton Institute in Virginia from 1913 to 1932, where he founded the School of Music and the Hampton Choral Union and led the college’s choirs to international renown. Dett took a leave for graduate study at Harvard from 1920-21. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger in 1929, at the Fontainebleau School of Music.
Dett next attended the Eastman School of Music, earning a Master’s Degree in Music in 1932. He then taught privately and in 1933 began conducting weekly choral performances on a national radio program on NBC.
In 1940 Dett started touring with a choir from Bennett College. It also sang on CBS Radio under his direction. In 1943, Dett supported the war effort by joining the United Service Organization as a choral advisor. He was on tour with a U.S.O. women’s chorus when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Battle Creek, Michigan. He died there on October 2, 1943.
The choral works of R. Nathaniel Dett have recently been revived and recorded by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a Canadian group comprised of 20 classically trained singers and led by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, Artistic Director. Its CD, "Listen to the Lambs: The Music of R. Nathaniel Dett" is on Marquis Classics / EMI Canada CDC 81293-2. The Chorale’s Web site is http://www.NathanielDettChorale.org. Another CD with several of the composer’s piano works is "Magnolias", released in 2002 by the African American pianist Gail Davis Barnes. The remainder of the CD is devoted to piano works of the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.