R. Nathaniel Dett and Francis Boott

I miss being able to remember things. I don’t even remember my own books. I went to a concert last Sunday that I was especially looking forward to because they were going to perform a piece by R. Nathaniel Dett, who I researched and wrote about.

I was telling a friend about Dett and for the life of me I couldn’t remember what prompted me to go up to Harvard to research him. Thank God it finally came to me. Harvard regularly gives out a prize for choral compositions called the Boott Prize, named for composer and Harvard grad Francis Boott, who founded and funded the prize. I wanted to find out how in the world it was possible that Ralph Vaughan Williams didn’t win for a piece he submitted, Toward the Unknown Region. I adore this piece. Who were the numbskulls who decided not to give him the award and why?? Even Vaughan Williams wanted to know, and he wrote composer Arthur Foote, the chairman of the committee.

Here’s part of what he got back:

“Your counterpoint is free flowing and has gone on since I last saw what you were doing. [Counterpoint refers to the rhythmic and harmonic relationship of the voices to each other.] I think however a dangerous lack results from what appears to be too great concentration on the counterpoint pure and simple and voice parts that are not melodic enough, or interesting by themselves. That is the danger always for us, especially when we get deeply interested in modal counterpoint. The more robust, musical and interesting handling of contrapuntal music [again, he’s referring to the relationship between the different melodic lines, which he is saying are not terribly melodic] that one finds in Bach, Verdi, Brahms, Horatio Parker, Mendelssohn, Handel (there’s a varied list for you) I think is the prescription.”

It isn’t possible for me to disagree with Foote more. Toward the Unknown Region is achingly melodic. I was thinking, well, who listens to Foote’s works anymore, good riddance. Then I listened bits from one of his compositions, and others I found on YouTube, and I loved what I heard. Maybe he’s not the genius Vaughan Williams was, but he deserves more attention than he gets. His works are performed occasionally at least. Francis Boott’s works have disappeared completely. OHMYGOD. I just found a recording of someone singing one of his songs!! Oh. So pretty. It gave me chills. Thank you so so much Angela Dinkelman and Nathan Girard. That was such a pleasure.

On a related I-Forget-Everything note, last night I was watching a PBS series called Inside the Met, about The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they had a shot of an effigy I love, not just because it’s beautiful but because of the story behind it, which I couldn’t remember!! It was bugging me and bugging me and finally I remembered. It’s of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Francis Boott’s daughter. His wife died young, when Elizabeth was only 18 months old, and Boott raised her. They were very close. But she died young, in childbirth. Tragic story. (My post about this statue.)

Back to R. Nathaniel Dett. While I was at Harvard I looked into the composers who actually won the Boott Prize (Vaughan Williams did won once). That’s how I learned of Dett. From my book, he “won in 1920 for his setting of the spiritual, Don’t Be Weary Traveler. Dett was African American, and he won at a time when most of America was segregated and black music had long been belittled in minstrel shows. Between 1919, when Dett had started writing Don’t Be Weary Traveler, and 1922, two hundred thirty-nine blacks were lynched in America … The “weary traveler” in Dett’s winning motet is a reference to the slaves on their journey to freedom along Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Dett had grown up immersed in Underground Railroad history. He was born in 1882 in Drummondsville, Ontario, which had a large population of blacks descended from escaped slaves, and eleven years later his family moved to the last stop on the Underground Railroad—Niagara Falls.”

“In 1940 he addressed a group of black students at Bennett College in North Carolina, where segregation was still legal. “If you, from your experiences which have been much richer than mine, will contribute literature characterized by the spirit of hope found in the spiritual, you will be an inspiration to the composers of our group and a new day for the Negro will dawn.”

I want to put the whole rest of that chapter in because what I learned from there moved me greatly. Except it breaks my heart because we lost some ground from what I describe. You know what, screw it, I’m putting it here:

For his entire life Dett was committed to elevating the cultural heritage of black music. Before leaving Harvard he was awarded one other prize, the Bowdoin, for an essay titled “The Emancipation of Negro Music.”

Dett was expanding on an theme he’d written about two years earlier. “We have this wonderful store of folk music—the melodies of an enslaved people, who poured out their longing, their griefs, and their aspirations in the one great universal language. 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 …”

Six years after winning the Boott Prize, Dett wrote another motet inspired by the weary traveler, this time using the words of a spiritual titled, Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler. According to Dett biographer Anne Key Simpson, this spiritual was “widely used by the slaves as a signal that one of their number was being helped to escape to freedom …”

Boott, who’d lived through the Civil War, once wrote, “Some one has said that slavery has been an incalculable benefit to the black race, but, if so, what must the disease have been for which such treatment is a remedy?” When Dett was just starting out in life, and beginning his first year of music study at the Oberlin Conservatory, and Boott was at the end of his, preparing his legacy, the civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois published his book of essays The Souls of Black Folk. At the end of the chapter titled Of the Sorrow Songs, he wrote:

“If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall be free. Free, free as the sunshine trickling down the morning into these high windows of mine, free as yonder fresh young voices welling up to me from the caverns of brick and mortar below—welling with song, instinct with life, tremulous treble and darkening bass. My children, my little children, are singing to the sunshine, and thus they sing:

Let us cheer the weary traveller,
Cheer the weary traveller,
Let us cheer the weary traveller
Along the heavenly way.

“And the traveller girds himself,” Du Bois concluded, “and sets his face toward the Morning, and goes his way.”

In 1998 the Nathaniel Dett Chorale was founded in Canada to feature Afrocentric choral music. When Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, The Smithsonian hosted a three-day festival to celebrate his inauguration. The chorale was invited to participate. On the last day of the festival, as Obama paraded by, the group stood on the steps of the Canadian Embassy and serenaded him with Dett’s motet, Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler.

As Obama made his way to the steps of the Capitol to be sworn in as America’s first black president, he moved forward into a place in history with Dett’s music of encouragement ringing in the air, proving, as William James had said at Boott’s memorial all those years ago, “that all our spirits and their missions here will continue in some way to be represented, and that ancient human loves will never lose their own.”

Here is Dett’s Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler (1926). And his Ave Maria (1930). I had problems with my camera so I didn’t get the full recording of the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble’s performance of this piece, but it was magical, as was everything they sang that afternoon.

From Sunday’s Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble concert.

Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

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