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Biography R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)

Image: R. Nathaniel Dett, 1930
R. Nathaniel Dett, 1882-1943. Photograph, sepia color. Robert Russa and Jennie Dee Booth Moton Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Unprocessed collection in PR 13 CN 1991: 240.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondsville, Ontario, Canada, on October 11, 1882. His ancestors were among the slaves who escaped to the North and settled in that slave-founded town. In 1901, Dett began studying piano with Oliver Willis Halstead in nearby Lockport. Three years later he was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory, where he majored in piano and composition. In 1908, Dett received his B.M. degree, winning Phi Beta Kappa honors. Dett's later education included studies at Harvard University under Arthur Foote (1920-21), and the American Conservatory in Fountainebleau with Nadia Boulanger. In 1932, he completed a Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Dett's most important work began in 1913 at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He trained the choir at that traditionally African-American school to a new level of musical excellence. His 40-voice Hampton Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in January 1914. Dett rose to the position of director of the Music Department at Hampton in 1926, the first black to hold that job. That same year, Oberlin Conservatory awarded Dett an honorary Doctor of Music degree, another first for an African American. On December 17, 1926, the 80-voice Hampton Choir assumed national prominence as it performed by invitation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The unaccompanied program contained Dett's trademark mix of repertoire--early English music, works from the Russian liturgy, Christmas carols, and arrangements of spirituals.

In 1930 the choir achieved another milestone as it embarked on a European tour under the auspices of George Foster Peabody, a philanthropic patron of the arts and Hampton Institute trustee. En route to New York, the group sang for President Herbert Hoover on the White House lawn. The choir of 40 select voices went on to impress audiences during its six-week tour of seven countries.

After earning his master's degree in 1932, Dett resigned from Hampton and moved to Rochester, New York. He died in 1943 while serving as choral advisor for the United Services Organization and touring with a women's choir in Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1973 his piano works were collected and published as a volume.


Dett published some 100 compositions, principally piano, vocal, and choral works. His major works for chorus include Chariot Jubilee, an extended motet, and The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio. Both use African-American spirituals as thematic material. The oratorio served as his master's thesis at the Eastman School of Music.

Dett's most enduring musical legacy survives in his numerous arrangements of folksongs and spirituals, most written for the Hampton Choir. His most frequently performed piece, Listen to the Lambs (1914), is scored for eight-part mixed choir and soprano solo. Other popular settings include Somebody's Knocking at Your Door (1919), I'm So Glad Trouble Don't Last Always (1919), and Don't Be Weary, Traveler, the 1920 winner of the Francis Boott Prize at Harvard University. Dett compiled two collections of spirituals, Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro as Sung at Hampton Institute (1927) and The Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals (1936). He based the Hampton collection on earlier editions of 1874, 1891, and 1909.

Dett was also an active poet and essayist. His 1911 Album of a Heart contained 30 poems on subjects such as love, nature, philosophy, and music. His undergraduate thesis, Negro Music, won the 1920 Bowdoin Prize at Harvard University. It contained four essays: "The Emancipation of Negro Music," "The Development of Negro Secular Music," "The Development of Negro Religious Music," and "Negro Music of the Present." In his writings Dett warned about the danger of losing the real meaning of African-American music through commercialization. His biographer, Anne Key Simpson, notes Dett's lifelong dedication to finding a musical form to bridge the gap between the music's simple origins and its concert performance. [1]

Dett as Conductor

Though Dett's formal training was in piano and composition, he directed choirs throughout his career. His performances captured the spirit of the text through frequent and exaggerated changes of dynamics. He conducted Tchaikovsky's The Legend in a 1928 Carnegie Hall concert. The reviewer pointedly mentioned the choir's "emphasis on particular notes, rhythm, contrast of volume and the gradual, breath-taking progression of chords, descending to a pianissimo of infinite beauty, and rising again to the final, desperate entreaty.[2] The choir similarly explored the extremes of dynamic expression in its singing of spirituals.

A prominent composer and musical writer, Deems Taylor, offered a colorful description of the choir's fullest forte during a 1931 Boston Symphony Hall performance: "When Negro singers come to a high note in one of the spirituals they--to put it bluntly--holler. And quite right, too. Hollering is just what is needed to convey the quality of convinced, unquestioning enthusiasm that permeates these . . . hymns." [3]

Dett emphasized that the pulses in the spiritual were all alike and that there were no primary or secondary beats. This resulted in a marked, incessant, unrelenting rhythmic drive. He wrote, "The rhythm of the songs might very well be compared to that of the human pulse which is a series of throbs all of equal intensity."[4] At times, however, a piece might begin "a fraction slower than its regular tempo" allowing the song to gain momentum "until a certain rate is reached which is then maintained until the end."[5]

Dett was opposed to the style of "swinging the spirituals" that was becoming popular during the 1930s. He held a poll among his students at Bennett College regarding their opinions of the popular style. One of his students, reflecting Dett' s teaching, wrote: "I like the music, but I don't like the way it was sung. . . . I think it lowers the spiritual." Another concluded that such swing-style arrangements were "not close to the spirit of the old spirituals."[6]


  1. Anne Key Simpson, Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett, Composers of North America Series, no. 10 (Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1933), 627. [back to text]
  2. Ibid., 148. [back to text]
  3. Ibid., 204. [back to text]
  4. R. Nathaniel Dett, ed., Religious Folk-songs of the Negro as Sung at Hampton Institute (Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute Press, 1927; reprint, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1972), preface, xv. [back to text]
  5. Ibid., xvi. [back to text]
  6. Simpson, 241. [back to text]