The BBC broadcasts the rediscovered work of “one of the greatest composers of African descent”

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Nathaniel Dett was a Canadian composer who descended from slaves and dedicated himself to the promotion of African American music, blending spirituals with classical Western styles in his works. Now, nearly 80 years after his death, the BBC Philharmonic will perform the world premiere of a newly discovered orchestral composition, described as “an absolute return to West African slave music”.

The manuscript was unearthed in a US archive by Dwight Pile-Gray, a British conductor and academic, who told the Guardian about 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 spirituality, expertise and comprehensive experience, his contribution not only to American musical life, but also 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 4 November, with a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

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

Born in 1882, Dett was inspired by his grandmother who sang spirituals when he was a child and by his mother who encouraged 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 choir that received critical acclaim in the United States and Europe, performing for President Herbert Hoover in the White House.

In its entry on Dett, the Library of Congress notes that he has published 100 compositions – including The Ordering of Moses, an oratorio, which uses African-American spirituals as thematic material – and that his “most enduring musical legacy survives in his many arrangements of popular and spiritual songs “.

Dett was also inspired by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who in 1893 told the New York Herald: “In the black melodies of America, I discover everything 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 listened to … a recital in which the Dvořák Quartet in F played. The third movement … is based on traditional arias, and it is here that Dett got the idea of ​​using the spirituals in his compositional production. Similarly, the Symphony No. 9 by Dvořák was inspired by listening to spiritual “.

He added: “Dett has organized and arranged many spirituals in the United States and, for African American choirs in the United States, Dett is performed very often. Not so much here. We don’t have a culture of spirituals in this country. You might get a choir that performs spirituals, but maybe they don’t understand why it’s important. These spirits come from many different places, as well as the enslaved African Americans who sang them. They are part of the Afro-American cultural musical heritage and one of the elements that united them ”.

He came across the manuscript by chance. He is among academics involved in an Arts and Humanities Research Council program, part of a collaboration with BBC Radio 3 that is shining “the spotlight on music rarely performed by composers of different ethnic origins”.

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

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