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During his lifetime Canadian-born R Nathaniel Dett [listen -- track 17, 2:59-4:31] was among the most successful black composers. He enjoyed widespread success for his use of folk songs and spirituals, preferring choral and piano compositions in early 20th century romantic style. At Oberlin Conservatory of Music he first explored the idea of using spirituals in classical music style. He discovered the music of Antonin Dvorák (resident in America: 1892-1895) was immediately reminiscent of spirituals he'd heard from his grandmother.

Here was the first black student to complete the five-year course at Oberlin. He toured as a concert pianist and during this period wrote rudimentary piano works. Subsequently he came under the influence of soprano E Azalia Hackley, who rekindled his interest in black American folk music.

Dett was among the first Afro-American composers during the early years of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Many of his numerous works appeared among the programmes of William Marion Cook's New York syncopated Orchestra and he appeared at Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall as a pianist and choir director.

'We have this wonderful store of folk music -- the melodies of an enslaved people,' he wrote. 'But this store will be of no value unless we utilize it, unless we treat it in such manner that it can be presented in choral form, in lyric and operatic works, in concertos and suites and salon music -- unless our musical architects take the rough timber of Negro themes and fashion from it music which will prove that we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.'

One of his most praised choral works, written in 1937, is the oratorio The Ordering of Moses. It was conducted by Eugene Goosens in 1939 at the Cincinnati Festival.

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Copyright © 1 October 2006 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


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