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How A Refugee’s Son Rose To Become One Of The Greatest Classical Composers Of African Descent

Courtesy of the Library of Congress


Robert Nathaniel Dett, one of many brilliant African-American musicians throughout history, was also a choir director, pianist, and author in addition to being a composer. Dett was born on October 11, 1882, in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada, now known as Niagara Falls, a community founded by runaway slaves from the American Civil War. According to sources, his parents were both African-American refugees who fled from the United States to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

According to, Dett’s first exposure to classical music was through listening to spirituals sung by his grandmother, playing the piano in church, and taking local piano lessons. Throughout his career, he was praised as a composer and pianist, particularly for his 19th-century Romantic-style Classical works inspired by African-American folk melodies and spirituals. Dett made history in 1908 when he became the first African American to receive a degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, according to He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

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Dett demonstrated strong academic ability and completed his formal education throughout his life, including attending Harvard University, where his 1920 article “Negro Music” won a medal. In 1932, he received his Master of Music degree from Eastman.

The Album of the Heart, Dett’s sole literary collection, was published in 1911. He practiced the piano for three years after his publication, went on tour as a concert pianist, and quickly won the praise of his critics.


Dett was introduced to the music of Antonin Dvoák, the great Czech composer who had visited the United States and incorporated American musical influences into his own works, such as the New World Symphony. Those songs reminded Dett of spirituals he’d heard from his grandmother.

When he was fourteen, he was hired as a bellhop at a hotel in Niagara, New York, and began performing piano pieces for guests in the lobby. He debuted his works Magnolia and I Remember the River Flats, a suite of six pieces depicting life in the Deep South, in two recitals at Chicago’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge Club in 1914.

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According to a Chicago Evening Post critic, Dett’s performances were the most inventive of the “All Colored” series. In the article “The Emancipation of Negro Music,” Dett stated as an activist for African folk music, “We have this great collection of folk music—the songs of slaves… This store, however, will be useless unless we use it and treat it in a way that allows it to be used in choral works, songs and operas, concertos, suites, and salon music.”

Dett studied music at Harvard under Arthur Foote from 1920 to 1921 in order to advance his career. While at Harvard, he received the Francis Boott Award for his choral work “Don’t Be Weary, Traveler,” and the Bowdoin Prize for his essay “The Emancipation of Negro Music.”

BBC Philharmonic

The BBC Philharmonic will premiere a newly discovered symphonic work described as “an absolute return to the music of West African slaves” nearly eighty years after Dett’s death, according to the Guardian.

Part Two of the Magnolia Suite: No. 4 The recently discovered “Mammy” is an orchestral arrangement of a movement from Dett’s 1912 piano suite of the same name. According to the report, the world premiere will take place on November 4, 2022, and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Nathaniel Dett Chorale

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated solely to Afrocentric music, performs a wide range of genres from classical to spiritual to gospel to jazz to folk and blues.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale is made up of twenty-one of Canada’s finest technically trained vocalists, and they’ve performed with jazz pianist Joe Sealy (Juno winner) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Since then, the Chorale has performed at memorials for Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Ali, and Oscar Peterson, among others, and was the only Canadian ensemble chosen to perform at President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration in January 2009.



Written by How Africa News

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