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
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
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
R. Nathaniel Dett at (Image Source)



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?

Angela Morley

History Hunt: Angela Morley

This week, we’re moving forward in the 20th century to meet a composer who not only wrote for numerous popular TV shows, but collaborated with some of the biggest names of the 20th and 21st centuries!

Angela Morley was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England on March 10, 1924. Her parents were both amateur musicians: her mother sang (her favourite song being “Big Lady Moon” by previously featured composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor) and her father played the banjo ukulele.

Morley loved music from the very beginning of her life. Before she could read, she learned to change the records on the family gramophone by recognising the colour of the label, and her earliest musical memory was sitting on the floor, surrounded by records.

When she was eight years old, her father bought a piano and her mother arranged for Morley to take piano lessons. However, after only three months, Morley had to stop her lessons when her father died suddenly and she and her mother moved away to live with Morley’s grandparents.

Over the next while, Morley tried out several different instruments. She spent a month learning to play the violin, but her grandfather disliked the instrument, and after he buttered her bow as a practical joke, Morley stopped playing. When she was eleven, she took accordion lessons and even won a few competitions with her performance. Unfortunately, a judge for one of these competitions told her mother there was “no future” in a career as an accordionist. (Morley)

Though the remark was both poorly chosen and untrue, Morley gave up the accordion and began clarinet lessons on a cheap clarinet that only partly worked. In spite of not being able to afford a better instrument, she was able to join the school orchestra. While in the orchestra, the mother of one of Morley’s fellow students bought her an alto sax–and that was where things changed.

Morley started playing with a semi-professional dance band; by the time she was fifteen, she had quit school and was earning her living playing the alto sax. It wasn’t much money, but at least she was doing what she loved.

Soon after, World War II began, and that turned out to be a blessing in a very large disguise for Morley. During this time, many musicians were being drafted to fight in the war. Morley, however, was too young for the draft and by this time was skilled enough to easily replace any holes in a band’s lineup. She played all over England until, when she was seventeen, she joined the extremely successful Oscar Rabin Band as their lead alto saxophonist. She also began earning money by arranging music.

Three years later, Morley went from one highly popular band to another: The Geraldo Band. It was here that Morley’s arranging skills blossomed. The Geraldo Band played in all sorts of styles for BBC Radio, which forced Morley to stretch herself to accommodate the demands of radio.

With such high expectations of her, Morley began studying composition with Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian composer. She also studied conducting with Walter Goehr. After all, since she was working with live musicians, it made sense for her to learn to conduct them.

By the time she was twenty-six, Morley had decided to stop performing so she could better concentrate on her composing and arrangements. Unlike many new composers, Morley had work right from the start. Within two years, she started ghost-writing film music; a year after that she became the music director of Phillips Records’ new UK branch. She began writing film music under her own name, and worked on not one, but two of the most popular shows of the 1950s: The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour! When she was ask to compose Hancock’s Half Hour‘s theme, she made it match the personality of the host–without ever having met him! She also worked with many of the great artists of the 50s, including Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Mel Tormé, and Dusty Springfield.

In 1960, Morley had decided against working any more with film music. While recording technology had advanced tremendously during this time, film music in England, at least, had yet to take advantage of it. The sound quality of the music produced was so bad that Morley couldn’t stand working with it!

She changed her mind later in the decade and did her best to break back into the film industry. It took her until 1969, but in the end, she succeeded, writing scores for classics such as The Little Prince and Watership Down, the first of which earned her an Academy Award nomination!

1972 was a very important year for Morley. When she was born, her parents had assumed she was a boy and had given her a male name. However, they had made a mistake. Now, with the support of her wife, Christine, Morley was able to correct this mistake with gender confirmation surgery–sometimes incorrectly called “sex change surgery.”

While life these days can be very difficult for trans people, in the 1970s, there was even more prejudice among the general public. When Morley returned to the music community after a hiatus, she received a wide variety of reactions. Some were positive: when she went to retire from her current conducting position because she assumed she would no longer be welcome, one of her fellow musicians, Johnny Franz, convinced her to stay. Morley’s wife also remained married to her for the rest of their lives.

Some reactions, however, were negative. Many people were extremely rude and prejudiced against Morley and chose to be cruel. But Morley outlasted their ignorance and resumed her career. She continued to compose and, after moving to California, went on to collaborate with other composers–such as John Williams on Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the rest of her life, Morley continued to compose for important TV shows and movies, conducted, and collaborated with other composers. She worked on E.T., Dallas, Wonder Woman, and Home Alone, to name a few of her credits. She also wrote arrangements for famous musicians such as Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and gave lectures on writing music for movies at the University of Southern California. And, thankfully, shereceived recognition for her work: she was nominated for six Emmys for her compositions and two Academy Awards overall, and won three Emmys for her arrangements.

Below is Morley’s “Rotten Row,” named after the location in Hyde Park where people historically went horse-riding. It sounds like the perfect song to listen to while on horseback!

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):
*Important note: Most of the sources discussing Morley involve misgendering, transphobia, or both. Exceptions are “A Profile of Angela Morley” and the autobiography on Morley’s site. Please tread carefully.

Angela Morley: Career Autobiography on Angela Morley’s official site
A Profile of Angela Morley, excerpt from a longer BBC programme on light music
Angela Morley at The Guardian
Angela Morley at The Telegraph
Angela Morley: Composer and arranger who worked with Scott Walker and scored ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ at The Independent
Angela Morley at
Angela Morley at

Ruth Crawford Seeger

History Hunt: Ruth Crawford Seeger

This week, we’re meeting another pianist from the first half of the 20th century! However, she’s someone who composed music in a very different style from last week’s featured musician, Florence Price.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (born Ruth Porter Crawford) was born on July 31, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio. Because her father was a travelling minister, she spent her childhood moving from place to place. Her mother, Clara, however, made sure she had the opportunity to learn to play the piano, starting when Seeger was six. Clara herself was a pianist whose parents hadn’t been at all supportive of her love of music, and so she wanted to be sure her daughter got the chances she didn’t. She became one of Seeger’s piano teachers as well while Seeger was young.

Seeger also sang with her family and composed on her own, but it seems that, at first, music wasn’t her greatest passion. In fact, when she was a teenager, like some of our previous History Hunt musicians, she wanted to be something other than a composer or performer when she grew up. In Seeger’s case, she wanted to be a writer!

When she graduated from high school, she took a job at Foster’s School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. Bertha Foster, who ran the school, had been Seeger’s piano teacher for years; when money had grown too tight for Seeger’s family to pay for lessons any longer, Foster had kept teaching her for free.

However, soon Foster moved her school to Miami, and Seeger left Florida to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois. Her plan had been to stay in Chicago for one year–just long enough to get her teacher’s certificate for piano. But Seeger fell in love with composing, and her one-year stay became eight full years of learning.

During this time, Western art music was undergoing serious changes. Composers wanted to completely break away from the musical traditions of the past and experiment with new ways of composing, using new sounds and new forms. Seeger was one of those musicians. She wrote music that sounded very strange to many people’s ears–but those who understood the new way of writing music also understood her brilliance.

While she was still studying in Chicago, she was one of six featured younger composers in a concert put on by the League of Composers, whose current goal is “to engage audiences by presenting performances of new music of the highest caliber written by emerging and established living composers in the context of 20th and 21st-century masterpieces.” It was an honour indeed, though certainly not the last she would receive.

A year after she graduated from the American Conservatory of Music, in 1930, she became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, a prize that let her travel to Europe for a year to compose. While there, she wrote her most famous composition, String Quartet 1931, which the Encyclopædia Britannica calls “astonishing.” Small wonder she’s often called “the most significant American female composer of the twentieth century” (American Folklife Centre).

After she returned to the United States, another phase in Seeger’s life began. With her new husband, she turned to recording American folk songs for the Library of Congress, to preserve this unique music for future listeners. She also wrote arrangements of this music and put together a short series of songbooks for children, which are still in use today.

Toward the end of her life, Seeger returned to composing–it’s never too late to return to something you love, after all. Though she still isn’t nearly as famous as she deserves to be, through her website and in interviews her daughter, Peggy, is making sure that her mother isn’t forgotten.

Below is an example of the new music of the 20th century that Seeger was so fond of, the Prelude No. 2 that she wrote while studying at the American Conservatory of Music. If you’d like to hear more of her works, Youtube has a number of examples, including her String Quartet 1931.

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):
Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Judith Tick
Ruth Crawford Seeger Biography by David Lewis
Ruth Crawford Seeger Children’s Books & CDs on Peggy Seeger’s official website
Ruth Crawford (Seeger) on
Ruth Crawford Seeger on Encyclopædia Britannica
About the Seeger Family at the American Folklife Centre
Review of Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Larry Starr
Ruth Crawford Seeger – Andante for Strings by Phillip Huscher
Ruth Crawford Seeger on
Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit (Image Source)

Mix and Match Genres

I enjoy pop music as much as the next person, but sometimes it’s fun for it to be shaken up a bit. And sometimes it’s fun for it to be shaken up a lot.

Postmodern Jukebox is a group headed by Scott Bradlee that has done dozens of remixes of recent and classic pop songs in genres from doo-wop to 1920s pop and in the styles of everybody from Marilyn Monroe to the Beach Boys. Here’s just one of their many remixes–there are plenty more on Youtube if you like what you hear!

Margaret Allison Bonds

History Hunt: Margaret Allison Bonds

When I was researching this week’s featured musician for History Hunt, I came across this sentence:

One of the first black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

And that was what made me decide to write about Margaret Allison Bonds for this week’s History Hunt. It sounds to me as if it’s time to shine a spotlight on her alone!

Margaret Allison Bonds was born Margaret Jeannette Allison Majors on March 3, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was a musician, as was her grandmother, and her father was a doctor. Though her parents divorced when she was only four, Bonds had a good relationship with both her parents throughout her life.

Her mother and grandmother were the ones to raise her, and it was after her parents’ divorce that Margaret Majors became Margaret Bonds, “Bonds” being her mother’s name before marriage. Right from the beginning, her mother recognised Bonds’ musical talent–she started giving Bonds piano lessons when Bonds was only three years old. By the time Bonds was five, not only had she moved on to study with another piano teacher thanks to winning a scholarship, but she had written her first piece of music! It was called “The Marquette Road Blues,” and it was only the first of many works Bonds would compose.

Interestingly enough, Bonds’ mother and grandmother disagreed about what Bonds should do when she grew up. Her mother thought she ought to be a pianist like her. Her grandmother, however, thought she ought to be a composer. As it turns out, they both got their wish–Bonds became both a pianist and a composer!

It certainly helped Bonds on her path that, throughout her childhood, she met many famous African-American musicians, composers, and writers. This was thanks to her mother, who frequently hosted gatherings at their home. She was able to learn from these more experienced artists and grow as in her abilities–though sometimes she was more interested in having fun with one of her friends than paying attention!

When Bonds was eight, she started winning scholarships, from both the Chicago Musical College and the Coleridge-Taylor Music School. (The second school, interestingly enough, was named after previous History Hunt composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor!) She used her scholarship from the Coleridge-Taylor Music School to study piano; five years later, she began learning how to compose from another teacher.

Bonds was only sixteen when she won a scholarship and was accepted at Northwestern University. Unfortunately, at this time, segregation was ongoing in the United States–laws that made it illegal for Black people and white people to do things like go to the same schools, public places, live in the same neighbourhoods, and generally participate in daily life together. Even though Bonds was studying at Northwestern University, she wasn’t allowed to live in any of the campus housing or even use the university pool. The constant racism she faced was extremely discouraging, but she fought on, kept winning prizes, and graduated from the university with first a Bachelor of Music and then, the very next year, a Master of Music.

The same year she received her Master of Music, she played at the Chicago World Fair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–the first Black person to ever perform with that orchestra. She received positive reviews from even white critics, and from then on, she performed all over Chicago. She composed her first and only operetta (a children’s story called Winter Night’s Dream), as well as a musical theatre version of Romeo and Juliet, called Romey and Julie.

She also taught, beginning while she was still in university, and at least one of her students was white. That was something very rare indeed during segregation in the United States, but Bonds’ genius was undeniable. And, when she was only twenty-four, she started a school for music, ballet, and art, called the Allied Arts Academy. Unfortunately, the school had to close after only two years due to a lack of money, and not long after, Bonds moved to New York.

Bonds worked hard to make ends meet in New York, composing and performing almost nonstop. But once again, she won another scholarship, this time to the famous Julliard School of Music. The scholarship was for composition lessons, but she also continued to take piano lessons at the time–after all, you’re never too old to learn!

Bonds went on tour in 1947 and had another first with an orchestra in 1950: once again, she was the first African-American to perform, this time with the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra. She founded the Margaret Bonds Chamber Music Society in 1956, and the group had their first concert at Carnegie Hall–one of the most sought-after places to hold a recital in the world!

Soon came an exciting period for Bonds: the 1960s. Not only had she become so successful that entire concerts were being held of just her music (one in 1963 and another in 1967), but this was the era of the Civil Rights movement, during which African-Americans fought for equal treatment under the law. Bonds was involved with the struggles at this time and composed music to encourage supporters of the movement. One example was the symphonic piece Montgomery Variations, which she dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. There was even a “Margaret Bonds Day” in Chicago, on January 31, 1967!

She also was becoming famous not just in the United States, but all over the world. Her work Ballad of the Brown King had a premiere at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and her music was being performed in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal as well. Bonds really wanted to go to the premiere, but unfortunately, she didn’t have the chance.

Though Bonds achieved a huge level of success, one of her many talents worked against her: she kept many of her compositions in her head, and so it can be hard to find sheet music of themthese days! That said, unlike last week’s History Hunt composer, Amanda Aldridge, Bonds’ music is still available on Youtube. Here’s her arrangement of the traditional African-American spiritual, “Dry Bones”:

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):
From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, by Helen Walker-Hill
“The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds,” by Alethea Nadine Kilgore
Margaret Allison Bonds at
Margaret Bonds at Afrocentric Voices
Margaret Bonds at