Explorations of Political, Religious, and Cultural Context in R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses
Thursday, January 19, 2023
Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
Born in Canada and raised in America, composer R. Nathaniel Dett is remembered as a pioneer who championed the use of spirituals and folk songs as a basis for Western classical compositions—a practice he developed as a student at Oberlin Conservatory. Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses (1932-1937) is widely considered his magnum opus in compositional scale and in its articulation of recurrent issues concerning both the construction of Black identity and artistry.
The January 19 discussion united prominent scholars and performers from the fields of African American music, choral music, ethnomusicology, music theory, and religion to explore Dett’s music, life, and ideas.
“I really don’t say this lightly: There are so many great composers, so many great musicians. But honestly, this work, The Ordering of Moses, to me, is one of the quintessential, epic monoliths in the earth…This work allows us to rise to a new level of consciousness.”
Damien Sneed, jazz faculty at the Manhattan School of Music
“As a member of a marginalized segment of society, when Dett talks publicly about himself or about his music, he’s not speaking transparently. He’s speaking in code. He’s speaking in many layers of code. And unless you know what those codes mean, you’re going to think that he’s saying one thing when he actually means several other things…So what we have to do is start from scratch and reconfirm everything that we thought we knew.”
Jeannie Ma. Guerrero, retired professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music
“People mention our great musicians, our great singers, that they went to HBCUs as an anecdote on the way to something else. So Jessye Norman graduated from Peabody but also went to Howard University. Leontyne Price graduated from the Juilliard School, but she graduated from Wilberforce before that. And these institutions, they are not heavens but they are important havens where young Black people can come and be mentored and be loved and be supported, and have their mind and their talent recognized and expanded in really critical ways that don’t happen almost anywhere else in American society.”
Fredara Hadley, ethnomusicology professor at the Juilliard School
“It is so unfortunate that Nathaniel Dett was not recognized for the genius he was—and still is—in his time. But it was for such a time as this that his life was ordered, for us to discuss it here.”
“Dett was a major proponent of preservation of spirituals, and that has led to some misconceptions about his music. Very unfortunately, spirituals are not considered classical music, and so that has led to a sort of categorical declassifying of Dett as a classical composer.”
“We would teach, think, listen to American music, regardless of genre, much differently if we centered what HBCUs have contributed musically to our world…There are things happening on HBCU campuses that conservatories desperately need to understand.”
“I’m glad to be part of the Dett-fulfillment team, as we call it in Rochester.”
Guerrero, noting that until relatively recently, few people at Eastman realized that Dett was the school’s first Black graduate
“We’ve all been ordered, here in America…to move forward to the future. And just as Moses was victorious, now, Robert Nathaniel Dett, we call your name. Now we can lift up the ancestor and say, ‘Now we honor you and put you in the proper place.’ But we have to now do the work and build, brick by brick, and now reestablish new pathways…where we, as Martin Luther King Jr. says, can all walk together hand-in-hand in unity, and understand that this is American music.”
Courtney-Savali Andrews, assistant professor of African American and African diasporic musics at Oberlin College and Conservatory, is an ethnomusicologist and pianist. Her areas of research include issues pertaining to Afro-Pacific identity and expression.
Roland Carter devoted his 50-year career to preserving Negro folk music and its identity in American culture through his teaching, conducting, composing and arranging of choral music. He is Holmberg professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he served as professor of American music from 1989-2013. He previously taught music, directed the choir, and chaired the Department of Music at Hampton University from 1965-1989.
Fredara Hadley, is an ethnomusicology professor at the Juilliard School where she teaches courses on jazz history and African American music. Her two areas of research center on the diverse musical legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Shirley Graham DuBois and the influence of musical pan-Africanism in her 1932 opera Tom Tom.
Jeannie Ma. Guerrero, is a music theorist, writer, pianist, choral musician, and retired associate professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music. A portion of her research focuses on the relationship between text and music.
Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, is an African-American womanist theologian, professor, author, poet, and an elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. She is professor emerita of religion and women's studies at Shaw University Divinity School.
Marques L.A. Garrett, an accomplished vocalist and composer, is assistant professor of music in choral activities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He devotes research to the choral music of R. Nathaniel Dett and has created critical editions of 10 of Dett’s choral works, providing them for free at www.mlagmusic.com/research/dett.
Damien Sneed, is a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer, and arts educator whose work spans jazz, classical, pop, and R&B. He serves as jazz faculty at the Manhattan School of Music where he teaches graduate-level courses in African American music history and conducting, the gospel music ensemble, and private lessons in piano, voice, and composition.