Born on October 11, 1882, Robert Nathaniel Dett was from Drummondsville, Ontario, Canada, a town founded by escaped slaves. In 1901, he began learning piano, 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
In 1904, he was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory where he majored in piano and composition. While there, he directed the choir of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, composing an arrangement for violin and piano of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."
In 1908, Dett received his bachelor's in music degree, winning Phi Beta Kappa honors. Afterward, he began teaching at Lane College in Tennessee where 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". . He performed a number of piano concerts in Chicago from 1914 to 1916.
From 1913 to 1932, he was the director of music at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. It was at Hampton Institute that he developed the choral ensembles for which he received international acclaim and recognition.
His 40-voice Hampton Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in January 1914. Dett rose to the position of director of the Music Department at Hampton in 1926, the first black to hold that job. That same year, Oberlin Conservatory awarded Dett an honorary Doctor of Music degree, another first for an African American.
On December 17, 1926, the 80-voice Hampton Choir assumed national prominence as it performed by invitation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The unaccompanied program contained Dett's trademark mix of repertoire--early English music, works from the Russian liturgy, Christmas carols, and arrangements of spirituals.
He conducted Tchaikovsky's The Legend in a 1928 Carnegie Hall concert.
In 1930 the choir achieved another milestone as it embarked on a European tour under the auspices of George Foster Peabody, a philanthropic patron of the arts and Hampton Institute trustee. En route to New York, the group sang for
President Herbert Hoover on the White House lawn. The choir of 40 select voices went on to impress audiences during its six-week tour of seven countries.
Also during this time, Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians and served as its president from 1924-1926. 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".
Dett's later education included studies at Harvard University under Arthur Foote (1920-21), and the American Conservatory in Fountainebleau with Nadia Boulanger. In 1932, he completed a Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York then resigned from Hampton and moved to Rochester, New York.
He died of Congestive Heart Failure in 1943 while serving as choral advisor for the United Services Organization and touring with a women's choir in Battle Creek, Michigan.
In all, Dett published some 100 compositions, principally piano, vocal and choral works. Dett's won the 1920 Francis Boott Prize at Harvard University for his Don't Be Weary, Traveler.
He was also a poet and essayist. His 1911 Album of a Heart contained 30 poems on subjects such as love, nature, philosophy, and music. His undergraduate thesis, Negro Music, won the 1920 Bowdoin Prize at Harvard University. It contained four essays: "The Emancipation of Negro Music," "The Development of Negro Secular Music," "The Development of Negro Religious Music," and "Negro Music of the Present." In his writings Dett warned about the danger of losing the real meaning of African-American music through commercialization. His biographer, Anne Key Simpson, notes Dett's lifelong dedication to finding a musical form to bridge the gap between the music's simple origins and its concert performance.
In 1973 his piano works were collected and published as a volume.Excerpts from www.anothershadeofcolor.com and http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200038840/default.html.