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Wed, 10.11.1882

Classic composer, Robert N. Dett

Robert N. Dett

On this date in 1882, Robert Dett was born. He was a Black composer, poet and pianist.

He was born in Drummondville, Ontario, where R. Nathaniel Dett began learning piano as a child, studying at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music in Lockport, New York.  He performed at churches and hotels around Niagara Falls, New York. Dett published his first composition, "After the Cake Walk," for piano, in 1900.  He also studied at Oberlin College. While there, he directed the choir of Mount Zion Baptist Church, composing an arrangement for violin and piano of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

In 1908, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, he began teaching at Lane College, Tennessee; there he composed "Magnolia," a piano suite. In 1911, while teaching at Lincoln Institute in Jefferson, Missouri, Dett published a book of poems, "Album of the Heart." From 1913 to 1932, he was the director of music at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He performed a number of piano concerts in Chicago from 1914 to 1916. Later that same year he married Elise Smith. During this time Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians and served as its president until 1926.

Dett is considered as one of the most important translators of spiritual music into works for the concert stage. Some of his best known works are "As by the Streams of Babylon," "Poor Me," and "Steal Away to Jesus." He later taught at Bennett College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and during World War II, he worked for the USO in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he died, in 1943.


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