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Classical Musicians of African Descent

R. Nathaniel Dett, conductor, pianist, composer

R. Nathanial Dett

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a choral conductor, pianist, and composer. His short choral piece “Listen to the Lambs” was a popular standard for many years. He also wrote piano pieces throughout his life that ranged from light parlor pieces to grant symbolic works inspired by the Bible and symbolist ideals.

Originally from Drummondville, Ontario, Dett spent part of his childhood on the New York side of the border near Niagara Falls. He studied piano from a young age, and received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory. He furthered his studies at Harvard with Arthur Foote and in France with Nadia Boulanger, and was awarded honorary doctorates from Oberlin and Howard University. In 1931, Dett moved to Rochester, NY to study at the Eastman School of Music, and was the school’s first Black graduate. For his master’s thesis in 1932, he wrote the oratorio “The Ordering of Moses,” which was broadcast nationally in 1937 on NBC. He remained involved in Rochester’s civic and musical life for the rest of his days.