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Robert Nathaniel Dett: A Black Canadian American Composer with Local Roots

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Robert Nathaniel Dett: A Black Canadian American Composer with Local Roots


Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a Black Canadian American composer, pianist, organist, and choir director with local roots. He was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario where he lived until he was eleven years old. (Had WNED Classical existed at that time, he probably would have been a listener!) In 1893 the family moved to Niagara Falls, New York. He spent the rest of his life living in the United States.

Dett earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He also studied with some major figures in music, including Arthur Foote at Harvard, and Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out what is right in front of our face. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was that outsider in terms of American music. After spending several years living in the United States in the late 1800s, he offered American composers the prophetic advice to stop creating music that sounded European, and to start creating music that sounded American. He felt that the basis of that American music would be found in the traditional work songs and spirituals of African Americans. Not only was Dvorak’s vision accurate in terms of American Classical Music, it proved to be accurate in terms of other styles as well, including Blues, Gospel, Ragtime, Jazz, Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Hip-hop, and many others.

The future of this country must be founded upon . . . Negro melodies. This is the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States…

- Antonin Dvorak

These days, Dett is remembered for his significant work in helping to create an American Classical Music style that follows Dvorak’s sage advice – a style that combines European Romantic styles and forms with the melodies and rhythms of African American spirituals. Dett’s most notable works are for choir, but his piano music is also worth getting to know. Below is a link to one example of music by Dett. We hope you enjoy it as we celebrate Black History Month 2021 on WNED Classical!

Northwest PianosRobert Nathaniel Dett, In The Bottoms Suite

Performed on the FAZIOLI F278 @ Northwest Pianos. Part of the "Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora" concert.

Full concert with commentary by Dr. Nyaho available at: