Oberlin Blogs

Black History Month: Nathaniel Dett

February 16, 2023

Ariel Roberts ’25

Oberlin has some pretty cool alumni. Their names might not be very well known, but once you learn about them, you find out that they are some of the awesomest people out there. For Winter Term, I had the pleasure of learning about and performing a piece by R. Nathaniel Dett, the first Black double-major graduate from the Conservatory with majors in Piano and Composition. Through lectures by scholars Dr. Sandra Graham, Dr. Marques Garrett, Dr. Clipper Erickson, and Dr. Felicia Barber, our Winter Term group dove in depth about Nathaniel Dett’s life and career. In the spirit of Black History Month, I’d like to tell you some of what I learned about him so you too can get to know about the incredible accomplishments of this extremely underrated Oberlin alum.

Dett was born on October 11, 1882 in Drummondsville, Ontario, Canada, which is now Niagara Falls (Library of Congress). He composed his first piece, “After the Cakewalk,” at the age of 18, a ragtime style piano piece. This was a popular genre in the early 1900s, so it’s no wonder why he decided to try it out. This piece is very different from all of his other work, though, as his style greatly evolved after his time at Oberlin. While studying at the Conservatory, he was introduced to European composers such as Tchaikovsky, and this new style bled into his own compositions to create a completely new sound to him. Pieces such as his magnificent Magnolia Suite showcase the evolution in his style. If Dett was still alive today, I think he and we Oberlin students and alumni could relate to the often transformative nature of going to Oberlin. Dett then attended Harvard University, the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, and the Eastman School of Music. After completing his studies, he conducted the Hampton Singers, a choir at Hampton University, who performed at Carnegie Hall, much like our own choral and orchestral group (Library of Congress).

“The Ordering of Moses” can be considered Dett’s magnum opus, his grandest piece that over 200 of us students and community members had the pleasure of performing at Carnegie Hall. Inspired by the African spiritual of “Go Down, Moses,” Dett’s oratorio of the story of Moses has clear metaphorical meaning about the history of enslaved Africans in America and their struggle for freedom. African spirituals were important to Dett because his grandmother had been enslaved, and he had heard her sing these songs that expressed the griefs and hopes of enslaved Africans. Some of his other works that utilize African spirituals are “Listen to the Lambs” and “Chariot Jubilee.” His use of spirituals was important to the creation of a distinctly American sound, one that wasn’t just mimicking European compositions. Moreover, choirs of HBCUs like the Hampton Singers and the Fisk Jubilee Singers were incredibly important to the recognition of African American talent, culture, and musical tradition. In this way, Dett contributed to the respect and recognition of African spirituals, spreading them to a wider audience and particularly heightening their popularity among white audiences.

Dett’s choral and piano works aren’t very well known, but they deserved to be performed and studied far more than they are. With our Winter Term project of creating podcasts on different topics related to Dett, we hoped to introduce more people to him and his work along with celebrate his history as a Black composer. Dett’s legacy is incredibly important to the history of African American composers and more specifically to the history of African American spirituals. I highly recommend listening to his music, as it is wonderful. Here is a brief snippet of one of our performances of "The Ordering of Moses" at Finney Chapel, and here are Dett’s complete piano works performed by Dr. Clipper Erickson. Besides my own knowledge from what I learned from our Winter Term lectures, I also used this webpage on Dett from the Library of Congress for specifics.

I hope to make this a series on the many awesome Oberlin alumni, as we could talk about so many people, such as Mary Church Terrell, Edmonia Lewis, Anna J. Cooper… But that’ll have to be for another time. Happy Black History Month!

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