WINOLD REISS (1886–1953)
Portrait of Robert Nathaniel Dett, about 1925
Pastel on Whatman board, 20 x 15 1/8 in.
Signed (at lower left): WINOLD / REISS
RECORDED: Jeffrey C. Stewart, Winold Reiss: An Illustrated Checklist of His Portraits [Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Portrait Gallery, 1990], p. 19 illus. as “Portrait of a Man”
EX COLL.: the artist; to his estate, 1953 until the present
Winold Reiss portrayed musical composer R[obert] Nathaniel Dett in his working clothes, a formal pleated evening shirt, necktie, and jacket. By the time that Dett sat for Reiss, he was in his mid-forties, a formidable presence in the world of African American music. Dett had shaped the music program at the Hampton Institute in Virginia since 1913. He was a teacher, a scholar, a concert pianist, a choral leader, and a respected composer of music incorporating American Black spirituals music into a classical idiom. His reputation faded after he died of sudden heart attack in 1943 while working for the USO.
Dett was, in fact, born in Canada to an American father, Robert Tue Dett, and a Canadian mother, Charlotte Johnson Dett. (See his own account in R. Nathaniel Dett, “From Bell Stand to Throne Room: A Remarkable Autobiographical Interview with the Eminently Successful American Negro Composer,” Étude 52 (February 1934); reprinted in The Black Perspective in Music 1 (Spring 1973), pp. 73–91.) They lived in the village of Drummondville, Ontario, now part of the township of Niagara Falls. On the Canadian side of the Niagara River directly across from Niagara Falls, New York, Drummondville was the first stop in freedom on the route of the underground railroad that led through New York State to the Canadian border. Over the course of the nineteenth century, it attracted a substantial population of African American refugees. Dett described his family as “educated” and “musical.” His father, from Maryland, may have been a Pullman porter. His mother, considerably younger, lived in Drummondville with her mother, originally from Washington, D.C. In 1893, the family moved to Niagara Falls, New York. By 1900, his parents had separated. Charlotte Dett maintained a successful career as the operator of a small tourist hotel and civic activist in the local African American community. By his own account, Dett was a precocious musical prodigy, able to play the piano by ear before he learned to read music. He studied with a series of piano teachers, learning the classical European canon. In 1903, at the urging of one of his teachers, Dett entered the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin had accepted African American students since the mid-1830s. In 1908, Dett became was the first African American to graduate from Oberlin’s five-year program in music and composition.
After graduation, Dett found a job teaching music at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, founded by the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. Dett credited his students at Lane with teaching him how to teach, and with introducing him to their legacy as inheritors of the tradition of African American spirituals. Though he had heard his maternal grandmother sing these songs at home, it was not the music of his childhood. After his tenure at Lane, he began his lifelong quest to compose music that incorporated spirituals into western European classical form. For the rest of his life Dett navigated a creative tightrope between the emotional truth and technical distinctiveness of the spirituals and the Western European canon. In 1913, Dett was hired to teach at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) where he shaped the music program until he left in 1932. In his years at Hampton, Dett achieved national prominence. In 1916, he married Helen Elise Smith, a New York singer and pianist who was the first African American graduate of the Damrosch School of Music (forerunner of The Juilliard School). The couple had two children. In 1924, Dett received an honorary doctorate from Howard University and in 1926, a second one from Oberlin College. In 1920, he studied at Harvard, winning two prizes: the Francis Boott Prize for his “Motet on a Negro Motive, Don’t Be Weary, Traveler;” and the Bowdoin Prize for his essay, “The Emancipation of Negro Music.” In 1924–26, he was president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. During that time, the Chicago chapter of the organization was founded and remains named for him. A Chicago elementary school is named in his honor. In 1926, Dett led the Hampton Institute Choir in a recital in the concert hall of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1927, he won the first Harmon Prize in music. In 1930, he led the Hampton Choir in a concert tour of Europe funded by the philanthropist, George Foster Peabody.
Through this period, Dett continued to compose and publish essays on African American music emphasizing the central role, in his view, of the spiritual. In 1931, two honorary doctorates did not keep Dett from earning a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Dett was a lifelong learner. He also studied, at various times, at The American Conservatory of Music in Chicago; at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; at Columbia University in New York; and with Mme. Nadia Boulanger at the Fountainebleau School of Music in France. Dett’s papers are held in a variety of locations: at the Sibley Library, Eastman School of Music, Rochester (primarily music manuscripts); at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and at the E.H. Butler Library, Buffalo State College, State University of New York. He continues to be claimed by his birth country, Canada. The R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site of Canada, Niagara Falls, was named for him in 1983.