Next week’s Piano Recital program with David Fung features several giants of the piano repertoire: Rachmaninoff’s elegant Moment Musicaux, Schubert’s technically demanding Wanderer Fantasy, Beethoven’s passionate Pathétique… and right alongside them are selections from Enchantment by a fellow master composer, Canadian-born Robert Nathaniel Dett.

Born in 1882, Dett was an incredible pianist, organist, music professor, and more in addition to his career as an trail-blazing, award-winning composer. He started on the piano at a young age and seemingly never stopped his study of music; he would go on to study at Oberlin Conservatory (where he would be the first Black American to complete a Bachelor of Music at the school), Harvard University with Arthur Foote, the Eastman School of Music, the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger, and many other notable institutions around the world. His wife Helen Elise Smith Dett was also a talented pianist and educator; she was the first Black graduate of the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art, known today as the Julliard School.

Heavily engaged as a leader of the American music community in his time, he founded several performing arts organizations, including the Musical Arts Society at Hampton University which started by organizing concerts featuring his contemporaries including Henry T. Burleigh and Clarence Cameron White and would go on to feature others like Fritz Kreisler, Duke Ellington, and more. He also served as the president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, one of the oldest organizations in the United States dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of music by Black Americans; starting with Marian Anderson in 1919, the organization has provided career-launching scholarships to many significant young Black musicians including William Dawson, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and more.

"Newly Elected Officers of the National Association of Negro Musicians" — 1925 (Dett is seated third from the right)

“Newly Elected Officers of the National Association of Negro Musicians” — 1925 (Dett is seated third from the right)

Active during the first decades of the 20th century — a historically significant period for American composers — Dett’s particular style of composition combines the 19th century Romantic style with Black folk songs and spirituals. He was inspired by several significant composers and musicians who explored a similar style including British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Similar to Dvořák’s vision for the future of American music, Dett had a clear vision for integrating folk melodies and traditional European structures:

“We have this wonderful store of folk music—the melodies of an enslaved people … 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.”

As an educator and conductor, Dett held several significant appointments including a 20-year-long tenure at the Hampton Institute (the institution’s first Black director of music); his students included several prominent musicians including Dorothy Maynor, founder of the Harlem School of the Arts and the first Black musician to perform at a presidential inauguration. He also spent five years in Greensboro, N.C. as Visiting Director of Music at Bennet College. During World War II, Dett joined the United Service Organization (USO) as a choral advisor to support the war effort; this appointment, however, would be his last, and he died while on tour with the USO chorus that same year.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was an incredible trail-blazer and talented artist who brought together European traditions and his Black roots. Throughout his career, Dett sought out, was connected to, and inspired many more trail-blazers, all playing their part as members of an incredible generation of Black American composers, many of whose works continue to be rediscovered today.

Experience a program of masterful works for the piano brought to life by visiting pianist, David Fung, celebrated for his elegant interpretations and “ravishing and simply gorgeous” performances.

Join us for the Piano Recital with David Fung