BBC to air rediscovered work by ‘one of Africa’s greatest composers’ | Classical music

Nathaniel Dett was a Canadian-born composer who descended from slavery and was dedicated to promoting African-American music, fusing spirituals with Western classical styles in his own works. Today, almost 80 years after his death, the BBC Philharmonic will give the world premiere of a newly discovered orchestral composition, described as “an absolute return to the music of West African slaves”.

The manuscript was unearthed from US archives by Dwight Pile-Gray, a British conductor and scholar, who told the Guardian of the excitement of finding the music of “one of the greatest classical composers of African descent “.

He said: “Dett used his knowledge of spirituals and created a fusion with western art music. Through his collections of spirituals, his expertise and vast experience, his contribution not only to the musical life of America, but to the world of classical music has been enormous.

The newly discovered piece, Magnolia Suite Part Two: No 4 “Mammy”, is an orchestral adaptation of a movement from Dett’s 1912 piano suite, Magnolia. The world premiere will take place on November 4, with a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Pile-Gray, a lecturer at the London College of Music, said: “The work is an absolute throwback to West African slave music. It’s slow and lyrical. However, I can hear elements of a two-step dance derived from the Juba dance, which was brought to the United States with the arrival of the first slaves.

Born in 1882, Dett was inspired by his grandmother singing spirituals as a child and by his mother encouraging him to recite passages from the Bible and Shakespeare. His musical training included the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he earned a master’s degree and where Pile-Gray found the manuscript.

In 1913 Dett became music director of the Hampton Institute in Virginia – now Hampton University – where he founded a critically acclaimed choir in the United States and Europe, performing for President Herbert Hoover at the White House.

In its article on Dett, the Library of Congress notes that he published 100 compositions – including The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio, using African-American spirituals as thematic material – and that his “most enduring musical legacy survives in his numerous arrangements of folk and spiritual songs”.

Dett was also inspired by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who told the New York Herald in 1893, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is necessary for a great and noble school of music.

Pile-Gray said, “While Dett was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, he heard…a recital in which they played Dvořák’s Quartet in F. The third movement…is based on traditional tunes, and this is where Dett got the idea to use spirituals in his compositional output. Similarly, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 was inspired by listening to spirituals.

He added, “Dett has organized and arranged a lot of spirituals in the United States, and for African American choirs in the United States, Dett is played very often. Not so much here. We don’t have a spiritual culture in this country. You can get a choir that performs spirituals, but they may not understand why it’s important. These spirituals come from many different places, just like the enslaved African Americans who sang them. They are part of the African-American cultural musical heritage and one of the elements that unites them.

He came across the manuscript by chance. He is one of the scholars involved in a program of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of a collaboration with BBC Radio 3 which “sheds light on rarely performed music by composers of diverse ethnic backgrounds”.

He said: “Western art music is created by white Europeans… In the 21st century there must be room for composers who are not white Europeans. It’s that simple. For our art to continue, flourish and grow, we need to be more reflective and representative of the society in which we live.

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