Joshua introduces Robert Nathaniel Dett, a quintessential Diasporic composer who blended African-American folk music traditions with classic European musical styles to create masterful and unique compositions. A performance by William Chapman Nyaho of Robert Nathaniel Dett’s piano suite, In the Bottoms, is showcased to illustrate Robert Nathaniel Dett’s prowess as a musical scenescape painter.
“In the Bottoms” by Robert Nathaniel Dett, performed by William Chapman Nyaho
Music Plays (00:05):
Angela Brown (00:15):
Hey everybody! And welcome to another episode of Melanated Moments in Classical Music. I’m Angela Brown…
Joshua Thompson (00:22):
And I’m Joshua Thompson, back once again, to help put a little more melanin in your music.
Angela Brown (00:27):
Hey, hey, now! I’ll take some!
Joshua Thompson (00:30):
[Laughter] Okay, well, here you go. We’re going to paint a picture with music today.
Angela Brown (00:35):
Ooh. How artsy of you, Joshua! [Laughter] And what kind of picture are we painting today?
Joshua Thompson (00:42):
We’re going to paint the landscape of the Deep South using the music of a composer that you and I are pretty familiar with.
Angela Brown (00:49):
Come on! You know that that list is too long, so narrow it down for everybody, please.
Joshua Thompson (00:57):
[Laughter] Okay, I got you. I got you. We’re going to talk about Robert Nathaniel Dett!
Angela Brown (01:03):
Ooh, yes, good ol’ Robert D!
Joshua Thompson (01:06):
Yes. I love that he is becoming even more well-known! Angela, he’s quite the brush master of composition, and we’re going to start this little musical arts and craft project here in a minute. But first, Let’s cover some of the basics for those who may not be so familiar with him.
Angela Brown (01:24):
Joshua Thompson (01:24):
Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, October 11th, 1882 and died in 1943. He’s a Black composer, organist, pianist, choral director, and music professor; whose musical talents really got started around the age of three, when he was just kind of noodling around on the piano and then began the serious study of music when he was five. So he’s in this period of time where: if you were to take the Underground Railroad to the top, that’s why you wind up, in Canada.
Angela Brown (02:01):
Joshua Thompson (02:01):
So he’s there for a little bit in his childhood, but so he can continue music, his parents moved him across the border, in New York, uh, around the age of nine. So he becomes a citizen at age nine, continues to study music, and in 1907, he becomes the very first Black American to earn a Bachelor’s of Music Degree from Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music.
Angela Brown (02:26):
Joshua Thompson (02:28):
This is not the first or the second time that we’ve mentioned Oberlin. We’ve got a lot of brothers and sisters who’ve been through Oberlin, getting the music degree. So he studied, uh, piano composition. And, uh, he really becomes one of the leading composers known for his use of African-American folk songs, spirituals and sets the basis for choral and piano compositions that we come to recognize in 19th century classical and romantic music. And there’s a reason for that!
Angela Brown (02:59):
Okay, tell us.
Joshua Thompson (03:00):
So, he’s doing some of the same things his contemporaries are. So he’s being influenced by Samuel Coleridge- Taylor, Harry Burleigh. Right? So these are iconic composers who are kind of telling Antonín Dvořák how to use folk music, spirituals in classical music. And what I love to talk about and we’ll listen to is– that almost single-handedly helps evolve classical music by kind of being that musical Canary in the coal mine, right– before ragtime, before jazz, before blues, and eventually leads to rock and funk and punk and hip hop, he does all that.
Angela Brown (03:40):
Wow. Sounds like he was ahead of his time.
Joshua Thompson (03:43):
Absolutely was. I don’t know if he was– would consider himself that way, but it’s a little bit easier for us to talk about how he is being this evolutionary in classical music. But, uh, there’s two pieces I like to highlight. There’s his “Magnolia Suite” from 1912, and then the one that we’re going to discuss later on is a piece called “In the Bottoms,” which was composed in 1913.
Angela Brown (04:06):
I’m glad we’re highlighting Robert Nathaniel Dett because he’s a composer who has always been a leading figure in 19th century classical music, but he seems to be overshadowed by some of his contemporaries that you mentioned like Harry Burleigh, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and of course, Antonín Dvořák.
Joshua Thompson (04:26):
Right! And, uh, the dude was there the whole time. So I really want to go into one of these pieces that we’re going to discuss, uh, his “In the Bottoms” Suite for piano. I just find it to be a Primo example of how composers– in general, but this guy specifically– can paint a landscape with music. But before we do that, I’ll give you a little bit of brief info on “In the Bottoms” Suite. So, you ready for a little bit of background?
Angela Brown (04:54):
Yes. As always!
Joshua Thompson (04:57):
Okay. “In the Bottoms” Suite is what’s called a tone poem, or ‘program music’. So what this does is: it sets to music the Deep South with its sights, its sounds, its textures, its smells, and the feels of the Deep, Black South. So I find it to be a very comprehensive work. And it’s a patchwork of using the romantic stylings, but also sonorities from the culture and the people of the landscape. And, uh, you know, this is kind of what sets him apart, just a little bit: the fact that he is a Black composer, and he is so proximate to these other contemporaries that he’s able to kind of give these winks and nods to the forthcoming era of ragtime– whether you know, what’s happening or not. ‘Cause ragtime is getting started in the amount of time that he is composing, somewhere between 1899 and 1920s. So, you know what, here’s what we’ll do: as always, I talk too much, so why don’t we listen to the very first movement so we can set the stage. This is ‘Night’, the very first movement of the “In the Bottoms” Suite by Robert Nathaniel Dett.
Music Plays (06:52):
[Robert Nathaniel Dett, “In the Bottoms – Prelude (Night)”]
Angela Brown (09:17):
Oh, Joshua. You know, I love how you always bring us music to help us to see the picture. At the very beginning, the impression that I got is this: nightfall is coming. And I remember sitting– now, I didn’t grow up in the South, but I remember sitting on the porch, uh, here in Indianapolis on a heavy, humid evening. And you can actually see the animals begin to hunker down. And so they’re burrowing in, or they’re flying to their nests. And then, I could see the fireflies come out, and it was– I mean, I just saw all these pictures while I was listening to this piece!
Joshua Thompson (10:00):
I told you– this is why he’s so good at what he does, because that’s exactly the impression in the picture that you’re supposed to get! Right? It’s the Deep South. I imagine it’s very humid as it’s getting dark and there’s– you know, how night and humidity can have a heaviness to it. And there can be tonalities of– maybe a little bit of somber, but if you noticed, as you were sitting on your porch, you’d heard that [hums motif from ‘Night’] dun dun dah, dah, dah. So that’s supposed to be, I imagine, an old man playin’ a banjo far off, and that’s the banjo folk melody that’s in this whole tapestry, in this tone poem in the first movement. So he’s setting the tone perfectly and you picked up on it!
Angela Brown (10:44):
And coming night is the end of your work!
Joshua Thompson (10:45):
Angela Brown (10:45):
So it’s a happier time as well, where you can relax and you can feel that in this piece.
Joshua Thompson (10:54):
That’s one of those– I’m like if the Big Easy had a bedtime song, that’s what this one would be. So he does this again in the Second Movement. So now we have the landscape, but he’s going to take some time to tell a very personalized story that’s going to represent the individual lives and, probably, the experiences of Black Americans living in the South. So the second movement of this work is called ‘His Song’. So let’s listen to it now.
Music Plays (12:02):
[Robert Nathaniel Dett, “In the Bottoms – His Song”]
Angela Brown (13:53):
Joshua Thompson (13:56):
Yes! I heard an individual story. I heard some church, you know, uh, and the folk tunes. You know, here’s one of my things I really enjoy about this is: the ending thing– if you listen to “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway– This is where he got it from.
Angela Brown (14:12):
Joshua Thompson (14:13):
Yeah! Every time I hear this piece and every time I play it, I kind of have a nice little snicker and a smile because I’m like, ‘Oh right. We’re having that intro of jazz, and folks didn’t even know it!’ I just think it’s a really fun movement, and it’s very soulful, I think, as well.
Angela Brown (14:29):
Yes. And I loved how he used the space because you could– he filled it– he didn’t have to feel like he had to do something all the time. You got a chance to breathe into the mood of the piece. So I liked that.
Joshua Thompson (14:42):
And you’re right about that. Too often we think that if it doesn’t have noise, it must not be good. Sometimes silence is golden. It sets the mood. He does the same with this next movement. It’s one of my fun ones. It really is such a cute way to kind of describe the rhythm, the syncopation, and the melodic personalities of the Southern flora and fauna, and, um, I think just the American landscape of the South. Let’s listen to the third movement called “Honey.”
Music Plays (15:57):
[Robert Nathaniel Dett, “In the Bottoms Suite – Honey (Humoresque)”]
Angela Brown (16:55):
I love it!
Joshua Thompson (16:58):
Isn’t it cute!
Angela Brown (16:58):
It is! You can hear, you know, snatches of ragtime in that. And I kept seeing the picture of a young couple, you know, uh, in the evening, you know, taking your little stroll and having fun and relaxing and– Oh, it was just, it was fantastic!
Joshua Thompson (17:13):
You know! And it’s one of those– it’s like, get in and get out. It’s a quick walk around the park. It’s a quick one! And, uh, that ragtime feel that you’re getting is because he’s not putting everything on beat one, right. He’s throwing in syncopation on the end of beats, and we all know that is what makes jazz, rhythmically jazz or ragtime, so he’s really kind of changing it up. And at the end of the day, it’s not complicated. It’s just a cute, simple lil tune, right? The next movement, I think is very, very self-explanatory, and it’s called “Morning.” And so, just like he gives you night, he’s going to give you tonalities that we associate with daybreak. And so this is going to feel very pastoral and romantic. And I really think it gives a wonderful example of just how masterful he is at composition, when it comes to creating musical scene scapes. We’re not going to listen to all of it, but let’s just take the very opening intro of this movement. And you’ll hear exactly what I’m talkin’ about.
Music Plays (19:02):
[Robert Nathaniel Dett, “In the Bottoms – Morning”]
Angela Brown (20:25):
That was beautiful, Joshua!
Joshua Thompson (20:28):
Yeah, isn’t it great?
Angela Brown (20:29):
I mean, I did hear that pastoral sound that you were talking about at the beginning, and it was like day breaking over the sky. It was beautiful.
Joshua Thompson (20:41):
I think this is what makes composers like him my favorite, because he’s not going to make your audience work too hard to get it, right.
Angela Brown (20:50):
Joshua Thompson (20:50):
He wants to create morning…well, he gives you morning, right? It’s very simple. So I think that’s what makes this music more accessible than, maybe, we give it credit for. Gotta be honest– we’re gonna wrap up with the final movement, and it’s called ‘The Juba Dance’. I have a personal story with this piece of music. This movement was the first and only piece of music that I received growing up that was written by a composer of African descent.
Angela Brown (21:17):
Joshua Thompson (21:17):
It was this last movement, the “Juba Dance.” I didn’t know that at the time, because it wasn’t explained to me. And I just have to be honest: Um, I did not like playing this song at all. Um, I just didn’t.
Angela Brown (21:30):
Joshua Thompson (21:31):
Yeah. You know, everything can’t be for everybody. And this just wasn’t for me. However, I will say this: a) I wish I had kept playing it because now I have to relearn it. There’s that. Um, but I do have, even though it’s not my favorite, I have so much more respect for this entire suite– but also this movement, because I know the history of it– and I understand the broader context of what to put in. So for that reason, and that reason alone let’s listen to this very bright– this very buoyant and rhythmic ‘Juba Dance’.
Music Plays (22:05):
[Robert Nathaniel Dett, “In the Bottoms – Juba (Dance)”]
Angela Brown (23:54):
Honey, I hear why this was given to you! Out of all the pieces we’ve heard today, this is the one that is going to make you work as a musician.
Joshua Thompson (24:03):
Well, when I tell you: it absolutely did, yes! I was a– I think I was 15, 16 years old when I played that one, and you’re right. And for that reason, this remains Robert Nathaniel Dett’s most performed and most famous composition out of all of them, right. This one got so much play, but again, it’s the dance of the Deep South. And then– also, too– ragtime was really doing classical music a whole lot of favors at this point, because you can hear some Jelly Roll Morton in there, and you can hear, you know, ragtime, juke joint type stuff. Right? And so, uh, like I said, thanks to you and to our listening audience for, uh, really doing some musical arts and crafts with the great Robert Nathaniel Dett. Check this selection out. It’s the “In the Bottoms” Suite, the characteristic suite for piano. I’m Joshua Thompson…
Angela Brown (24:59):
And I’m Angela Brown.
And this has been Melanated Moments in Classical Music.
Joshua Thompson (25:09):
Season Two of Melanated Moments in Classical Music was made possible by The Indianapolis Foundation, a CICF affiliate. We thank them for their generous support.
Angela Brown (25:20):
Melanated Moments in Classical Music is proud to partner with The Coalition for African-Americans in the Performing Arts and Morning Brown, Incorporated.
Joshua Thompson (25:31):
Melanated Moments in Classical Music is a production of Classical Music Indy. Our producer is Ezra Bakker Trupiano. Our theme music was composed by Laura Karpman.
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