Composer, conductor, musician, poet, and writer R. Nathaniel Dett

History Hunt: R. Nathaniel Dett

This week (well…it was supposed to be last week, but I had a ton of errands), we’ll be meeting our second Canadian of History Hunt, someone who actually lived fairly near me! It was a really neat discovery for me, and I’m planning on going out of my way to introduce my music students to him as soon as I can track down some of his works.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville (now a part of Niagara Falls), Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882.

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

At first, Dett’s musician parents didn’t realise that their youngest son had inherited their gift, but that was soon to change. While two of his older brothers were receiving piano lessons, Dett began to copy them. He played their pieces–but without the sheet music they were using. When his brothers’ teacher found out, she was so impressed that she started teaching him for free!

When Dett was eleven, his family moved to the United States side of Niagara Falls. There, he continued his piano lessons and later, around when he was fourteen, he took a job as a bellhop at a local hotel. When he had the time, he would play the piano located in the lobby, which earned him more than a few fans.

The next year, in 1897, Dett made a decision. While he was setting up chairs in the hotel parlor for a visiting bass singer (who had actually been his Sunday School superintendent), he told himself that the next time he moved chairs, it would be for his own recital. Sure enough, later that summer, he was able to put on a piano recital in the same hotel parlor.

When he was sixteen, Dett became church organist at a church on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. In 1901, Dett began studying at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music; two years later, he quit his job as church organist to join the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. There, he majored in both piano and composition, which would have been a tremendous amount of work. It also would have been expensive, but luckily, when Dett gave a benefit concert after his first year to raise money for his classes, one of the attendees was so impressed that he promised to help him pay for his lessons.

While Dett was at Oberlin, he heard a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s American quartet that changed the course of his life. This work for strings was composed using traditional folk songs, and as Dett listened, he remembered his grandmother, who had sung songs written by African-Americans while enslaved. Dett had never been comfortable with the reminders of such a terrible time those songs brought. But now, he became determined to keep the memory of these songs alive, so they wouldn’t fade away.

In 1908, Dett graduated from Oberlin, holding a Bachelor of Music degree with honours. He was the first Black person to earn this degree at Oberlin. That wasn’t the last time Dett studied music, though: he earned degrees and honourary degrees from universities all over the United States, including the highly prestigious Harvard University. By far, Dett’s biggest learning trip was to Paris, France, later in his life. There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the older sister of last week’s History Hunt composer, Lili Boulanger.

After Dett’s graduation, he began teaching at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. In 1911, he showed he was a man of many talents by publishing a book of poetry he dedicated to his mother. He spent the next few years teaching at two more universities and studying how to teach choirs, and then, in 1914, he gave two piano recitals that cemented his reputation as a composer and a pianist–one of which was at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Club in Chicago, Illinois. (This club was named after a previously featured History Hunt composer, who you can read about here.) He also entered a composition contest that same year put on by the Music School Settlement of New York and came second.

During World War I, Dett wrote music to keep up the spirits of both Canadians and Americans alike. He also got married, in 1916, to Helen Elise Smith, who was the first Black person to graduate from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (which later became part of the famous Julliard School of Music).

After the war, Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, and was its president between 1924 and 1926. The next year, he published an essay in four parts called Negro Music, which was an analysis of the state of Black folk songs and how they might best be preserved. This essay won him a Bowdoin Prize from Harvard. These prizes are “some of Harvard’s oldest and most prestigious student awards” (Harvard); winning one was very significant indeed. He also won a Francis Boott prize from Harvard in the same year, this time for his composition “Don’t Be Weary, Traveller.” And, on top of that,  later on, one of the groups to commission compositions from him was the TV station CBS, who asked for two separate symphonies!

After teaching at numerous universities, Dett settled at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There, he became the university’s first Black Director of Music by 1926 and united the university choir with local singers. With Dett at its head, the resulting choir went on numerous tours all across the United States and even to Europe and became very popular indeed. They performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall and Constitution Hall–the very same location that, eight years later, would refuse to allow Marian Anderson to perform for racist reasons. (See my History Hunt post on Marian Anderson for more information.)

Dett’s determination to preserve and help Black traditional music grow lives on even today. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale states on its website that it “is Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues.” Dett would have been proud indeed.

Below is one of Dett’s most popular pieces from the suite In the Bottoms,  “Juba,” which is based on traditional Black music and dance.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
R. Nathaniel Dett at AfriClassical.com
R. Nathaniel Dett at Afrocentric Voices In “Classical” Music
Nathaniel Dett at The Canadian Encyclopedia
Roots and The Chorale at The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
Nathaniel Dett at Black History Canada
Robert N. Dett at the African American Registry
Dett, R. Nathaniel at BlackPast.org
R. Nathaniel Dett’s Views on the Preservation of Black Music by Jon Michael Spencer
Robert Nathaniel Dett Facts at YourDictionary
Bowdoin Prizes for Undergraduates at Harvard University
Dett Wins Francis Boott Prize at The Harvard Crimson
Juba dance at Wikipedia.org
R. Nathaniel Dett at Wikipedia.org (Image Source)

 

Lili Boulanger, brilliant composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist

History Hunt: Lili Boulanger

Apologies for missing last week’s History Hunt post, everyone! It was my last week of lessons and I had a fair bit of work to wrap up. Because of that, I hope to post two History Hunt biographies this week–fingers crossed!

For my first post this week, then, we’re moving back in time thirty years and off to France to learn about a composer who shone brightly for a far too short period of time.

Juliette-Marie Olga Boulanger (nicknamed “Lili”) was born in Paris, France, on August 21, 1893. Her family was an extremely musical one, with composers, teachers, and artists in her family tree. Her mother, who claimed to be a Russian princess (although whether she was,  or if she was a countess or something else entirely is unclear), was a singer who had met Boulanger’s father when she took lessons from him later in life.

Unfortunately, when Boulanger was only two years old, she caught pneumonia. Like many illnesses, this wasn’t nearly as easy to treat as it is today, and so she nearly died. Though she survived, her illness left her much more susceptible to sickness, and she spent a lot of her life ill.

However, even as a little girl, Boulanger was determined to get the most out of life that she could. Her first teacher was her older sister Nadia (who will be a future History Hunt feature!), and she also learned from the famous composers that often visited the Boulanger household. She started tagging along to her older sister’s classes at the Paris Conservatory when she was five; by the time she was six, she was sight-reading music written by the famous French composer Gabriel Fauré! She learned not only how to sing, but how to play the piano, the harp, and the violin. Her first public performance on the violin was when she was eight, and she was eleven when she participated in her first piano recital.

When Boulanger was sixteen, she was at last able to properly join the Paris Conservatory. There, she took multiple composition classes. As a teenager, while Boulanger was of course dedicated to music and composition, she was also, like many her age, dedicated to having fun. She would often write in her diaries about who went to the various musical events and dinners she attended and how many people were there, with clear pleasure.

In 1911, Boulanger’s older sister, Nadia, once again became one of her teachers, this time for composition. A year later, Boulanger made an important decision: she was going to win the Prix de Rome (“Roman Prize”). In order to do so, she would need to work very hard indeed–in over one hundred years since the musical category of the Prix de Rome had been created, not one woman had won first prize. Boulanger, however, was convinced that she would be the first.

For the next year, she worked as hard as she could. In her diary, she wrote about being sick very often and even missing sleep as she worked on her composition. She studied for and passed the exam to the class that would allow her to enter the Prix de Rome. At the same time, though, she made sure to take breaks and enjoy herself, going out dancing, to concerts (where, for the first time, her compositions were performed), and to dinner.

Sadly, while Boulanger entered the Prix de Rome competition in 1912, she became too ill to participate and had to drop out. Still, Boulanger didn’t give up. She entered the contest again the next year, in 1913–and won! For the first time since the musical contest began 1803, a woman had placed first in the Prix de Rome. And, not only that, she was (and still is!) one of the youngest composers of any gender to win, at only 19 years old.

As part of her prize, Boulanger was awarded a publishing contract and she and her family were allowed to stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, her visit was cut short when, in 1914, World War I began. She returned to France and instead stayed in Nice for a while to compose, before going home to Paris. She and her sister wanted very much to help out their fellow musicians off fighting in the war. So together they helped create a committee of French and American volunteers to send care packages to their friends on the front lines and money to both soldiers and their relatives back home. Boulanger also helped care for wounded soldiers who had been sent away from the war front to recover, and she even edited a publication on recent composition lessons taught at the Paris Conservatory to send out to musicians so they could keep up their studies.

Though her wartime work kept her very busy and she was often sick, Boulanger kept on composing. In 1916, she started work on an opera called La princesse Maleine (“Princess Maleine”), and she visited the Villa Medici again for a time. She even started to experiment with new composition techniques.

Sadly, Boulanger died in 1918, when she was only twenty-four. Even still, she kept composing to the very end: her last work was dictated to Nadia when Boulanger was too ill to write herself.

For the rest of her life, Nadia did her best to make sure her younger sister wasn’t forgotten. She founded The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, which awards money to help talented composers and musicians. There’s now a Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Centre, created from the merger between the Friends of Lili Boulanger Association and the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Foundation. And, in 1927, nine years after Boulanger’s death, she had an asteroid named in her honour, 1181 Lilith. Lili Boulanger may be gone, but as long as we keep working hard, she won’t be forgotten.

Listen below to Boulanger’s Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), an extremely powerful vocal work she wrote when she was 19.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Nadia and Lili Boulanger by Dr. Caroline Potter
Lili Boulanger at Naxos.com
Lili Boulanger at BBC Music
Boulanger Lili [Juliette-Marie Olga] at Musicologie.org (French)
Lili Boulanger at Sinfini Music
Lili Boulanger at Hyperion Records
Lili Boulanger at France Musique (French)
History at Centre International Nadia et Lili Boulanger (English and French)
The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund at the University of Massachusetts Boston
Lili Boulanger at Wikipedia.org
Prix de Rome at Wikipedia.org
Villa Medici at Wikipedia.org

 

Major to Minor and Minor to Major

When composers write music, one of the most important decisions they need to make is which key to write in. As a general rule (although there are plenty of exceptions!), music written in a major key sounds happy and music written in a minor key sounds sad.

But what happens if you change the key of a well-known piece of music? Every once in a while, arrangers like to find out.

Below are two examples of music with key swaps. The first is a major song written in minor and the second is a minor song now written in major.

There are plenty more examples on Youtube, of popular songs and videogame music alike–even some Beethoven. Why not check a few of them out?

Leontyne Price, famous opera singer

History Hunt: Leontyne Price

We’re back in North America in the twentieth century this week to meet a soprano with a connection to an opera star previously featured on History Hunt!

Leontyne Price was born as Mary Violet Leontine Price on February 10, 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi. Her mother was an amateur singer well known for her beautiful voice and her father played the tuba. Both parents encouraged Price to follow her love of music from a young age. Price was given a treasured toy piano when she was three, started lessons on a full-sized piano when she was five (or possibly also when she was three, according to one source), and participated in her first recital when she was six years old. She also sang from an early age in the church choir, the way her mother did, and performed at school.

When Price was nine years old, something happened to change her life: her mother took her on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to a very special concert. The star was none other than Marian Anderson, the first African-American person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Price was inspired by seeing an African-American opera star with a very successful career in spite of the racism of the time, and it was right then and there that she decided she wanted to be an opera singer, too.

Price worked hard at school as she grew up, both at her studies and her singing. She sang and played piano for her high school’s glee club, and she gave recitals and performed not just at school, but at church and in her community. When she graduated, it was with honours and a prize for “outstanding ability in music” (Nash).

Price knew that being an opera star isn’t easy. It’s often hard to make a living–and that was even more the case for an African-American woman in the 1940s. So when she went to university, she decided to get a music education degree as a fallback option. However, her voice teacher, Catherine Van Buren, encouraged her to take a chance and focus exclusively on her singing. That led Price to participate in a competition to earn a four-year scholarship to The Julliard School, a famous school of music–and she won the prize!

Though the scholarship money covered many of Price’s expenses, it still wasn’t quite enough. To fill in the gaps, Price was helped by Paul Robeson (a soon-to-be-featured History Hunt musician), who put on a benefit concert in which both he and Price participated. That concert raised $1000, which was a tremendous amount of money at the time. Price also received help from white musician Elizabeth Chisholm, who had often hired her in the past to sing at her concerts.

While studying at Julliard, Price sang in all kinds of operas put on by the school, and it was at one of these performances that her life once again changed. A composer named Virgil Thompson was so impressed by her that he offered her the role of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. That meant at the age of 25, Price was singing on Broadway and in Paris in the first–but definitely not last–major role of her career.

Her next big career break was being offered the role of Bess, from the opera Porgy and Bess (which previous History Hunt musicians Ruby Elzy and Robert McFerrin, Sr. had participated in). For the next two years, Price toured all across the United States and Europe giving performances before returning to her home country.

When Price was 28, she was hired to star in a television production of the famous opera Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini. She was the first African-American person to appear on TV in an opera role, and even though twelve TV stations in the American South refused to show the program for racist reasons, the performance brought Price still more fame. It was the first of several TV opera performances for Price over the next five years.

Two years later, in 1957, Price made her debut on the opera stage in San Francisco in a brand-new opera called Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites). In the same year, with a bit of good luck for her and bad luck for another singer, Price was able to sing in one of the most famous operas in Western classical music: Aïda. The soprano who was supposed to sing the lead role became too sick to perform, and so Price stepped in–and was a huge success.

Even though Price had developed an international career, performing at famous venues like Covent Garden in London, England, and the Teatro alla Scala (nicknamed La Scala) in Milan, Italy, it wasn’t until 1961 that she at last was able to give her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She was only the fifth African-American opera singer to participate in an opera there; her first (but definitely not last!) performance was in Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi, as the lead soprano. The audience for her debut was so astounded by her brilliance that they gave her a forty-two minute standing ovation!

Leontyne Price in costume for her starring role in Il Trovatore.

Leontyne Price in costume for her starring role in Il Trovatore.

Price gave 204 performances at the Metropolitan Opera over the next twenty-four years as one of the opera company’s lead sopranos. She had a role created just for her in an opera commissioned by the Met, that of Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. From then on, Price was so famous that she could pick which roles she would play. She chose carefully, making sure not only that she wouldn’t be too busy and would have time to give recitals, but also to avoid harmful stereotypes about black people.

Over the length of her career, Price won between eighteen and over twenty Grammy Awards (sources differ) and was awarded a number of high honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences. While she retired from the stage in 1985, her incredible singing hasn’t been forgotten, and she has a core of dedicated fans even thirty years after her farewell opera performance.

Below is a video of one of her performances in the role of Floria Tosca in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Leontyne Price on Mississippi Writers & Musicians
Leontyne Price on Biography.com
The 20th Century O-Z: Dictionary of World Biography ed. Frank N. Magill
Leontyne Price at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Leontyne Price at Women’s History on About.com
Leontyne Price Was Born February 10, 1927 on America’s Library.gov
Leontyne Price Biography on the Encyclopedia of World Biography
MetOpera Database on The Metropolitan Opera Archives
Leontyne Price by Randye Jones
Leontyne Price on Wikipedia.org
Image sources: Defining Diva and Leontyne Price

Symphony for Orchestra and One Really Big Hammer

Over the years, composers have requested unusual additions to the standard orchestra in order to make their music come alive. One of the most interesting, in my opinion, would be the instrument Gustav Mahler wrote into his Symphony No. 6 in A Minor.

Mahler asked for a sound that’s “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)” (Independent.co.uk; mild language and inaccuracies in link), but he never specified which instrument should deliver the blow. Most people’s solution? A gigantic hammer.

I’d be willing to bet quite a bit that every single other person in those orchestras who doesn’t get to play the giant hammer are tremendously envious–even if some of them might not want to admit it!