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Music

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Dett finds the roots of an American classical style

On Wednesday, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra resurrects R. Nathaniel Dett’s compact but ambitiously innovative 1919 oratorio “The Chariot Jubilee.” Born in Ontario in 1882, Dett accomplished much. He was Oberlin College’s first African-American music graduate. He led the music department at Virginia’s Hampton Institute for nearly 20 years. While on a Harvard sabbatical — during which “The Chariot Jubilee” was premiered, by the Boston Cecilia — his influential four-part essay on “Negro Music” won the university’s Bowdoin Prize. He was the model of a serious, early-20th-century African-American musician.

It was after hearing a Dvorák string quartet at Oberlin that Dett realized the possibility of treating Negro spirituals as elements in more extended, classical forms. Spirituals became Dett’s musical cause. “The Chariot Jubilee” arranges spiritual-derived themes — from “Ride Up in the Chariot,” “Father Abraham,” and, especially, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — into a polished musical sermon. There are touches of late Romanticism: some melting voice-leading, a complex weave of slow- and fast-moving vocal parts. There is even, in the bounciest section, an evocation of trains (which spirituals often compared to heavenly chariots). But “The Chariot Jubilee” is disciplined music, decorously expressive.

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Dett’s two largest choral works — “The Chariot Jubilee” and 1937’s “The Ordering of Moses” — chronologically bookend the aesthetic ferment known as the Harlem Renaissance. Marrying spirituals and concert-hall manners suited the movement’s initial high-minded ambitions for African-American culture. But Dett’s style came to be squeezed between those who considered the classicizing of folk elements an unacceptable dilution and those who thought spirituals too dated, preferring jazz as a basis for African-American music.

In his early works, Dett sometimes used stylized ragtime elements, and insisted that syncopation was a crucial element of any true African-American music. But Dett was suspicious of jazz and blues. Reviewing James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s famous two-volume collection of spiritual arrangements, Dett censured the presence of “jazz, the Charleston, and other dance-like motives,” even as jazz was becoming the predominant vehicle and signifier of African-American expression.

Dett never stopped striving. After leaving Hampton (his uncompromising standards having caused friction with college administration), he earned a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, thereafter teaching, composing, and leading various choirs. He died in 1943 while on a USO tour; obituaries described an honored but somewhat outdated figure. “The Chariot Jubilee,” untouched by jazz’s snap and exuberance, is similarly old-fashioned, but it stands on its own terms: joyfully stately, unreservedly refined.j

Christopher Wilkins conducts the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, the New England Spiritual Ensemble, and the One City Youth Choir in “From the

New World: The Legacy of the Spirituals,” featuring music by Dett, Weston, and Dvorák, Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade (free; www.landmarksorchestra.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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