The Voice

Featured Composer: Robert Nathaniel Dett

by Stefan Brodd on March 23, 2021

Robert Nathaniel Dett was a Canadian-American composer, organist, pianist, choral director, and music professor. Born in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1882, he moved with his family to the United States at the age of 11. In 1907 he received a Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, one of the few non-segregated institutions of its kind at the time. During his Oberlin years, he heard the music of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who was touring the United States and writing music influenced by American folk music. Dvorak’s melodies reminded Dett of the spirituals he had heard his grandmother sing. Those spirituals, and melodies influenced by them, became signature elements of his compositions. His writing for piano solo began with the early suites Magnolia and In the Bottoms, and culminated with Eight Biblical Vignettes, written during the last two years of his life. Dett died in 1943 while travelling with the USO Chorus as part of a tour for troops during World War II. He is buried in the city of his birth.

A favorite piece among the First Trinity and Saint Matthew community is Dett’s solo piano suite Cinnamon Grove. Written in 1928, the suite consists of four movements, each based on one of the composer’s favorite pieces of poetry. The first movement, Moderato molto grazioso, is inspired by words from The Dream by the English poet and cleric John Donne:

          Dear love, for nothing less than thee

          Would I have broke this happy dream:-

The beautiful second movement, marked Adagio cantabile and forming the emotional center of the suite, was inspired by words from the poem Gitanjali by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913:

            When thou commandest me to sing

               it seems that my heart would break

            with pride; and I look to thy face,

               and tears come to my eyes.

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Tags: music, composers, robert nathaniel dett


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