Rhapsody in Black

Robert Nathaniel Dett saw spirituals as a source of American music

Nathaniel Dett's oratorio 'The Ordering of Moses' was premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1937 on national radio.Library of Congress

Rhapsody in Black - Robert Nathaniel Dett


download audio

August 11, 2022

Composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, who lived until 1943, was a collector and preserver of spirituals, and he saw the music as a rich and artistic source of melody for American music. When he heard the music of Antonín Dvořák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor for the first time, Dett was drawn to the way their melodies reminded him of the spirituals his grandmother, a former enslaved woman, had sung to him. Here's what he said about it:

We have this wonderful store of folk music—the melodies of an enslaved people … But this store will be of no value unless we utilize it, unless we treat it in such manner that it can be presented in choral form, in lyric and operatic works, in concertos and suites and salon music, … music which will prove that we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.

Musical selections from Robert Nathaniel Dett

In the Bottoms

In the Bottoms is a piano suite consisting of five movements. Each movement in the suite includes expressions of African American folk songs, portraying unique scenes from the Black community in the American South’s River Bottoms region.

Son of Mary

Originally published by the John Church Co. in 1926, this song is based on a traditional Negro melody from Dett’s collection.

The Ordering of Moses

This oratorio is a retelling of Moses leading his people to the promised land. It was premiered in 1937 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus, but broadcast never finished due to technical difficulties.


Host: Tesfa Wondemagegnehu

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher