R. Nathaniel Dett:
My Cup Runneth Over
On his debut album for Navona Records, pianist Clipper Erickson performs an invaluable service in presenting this encompassing portrait of Robert Nathaniel Dett's music. Not only does the double-CD collection present the American composer's piano works in their entirety (approximately 150 minutes in total), it accentuates in doing so the distinctive manner by which Dett (1882-1943) fused African American folk and European classical idioms in his compositions. Other composers have famously integrated folk materials into their works, too—think of Dvorák and Copland, for example—but Dett's music stands apart from theirs in its incorporation of African American spirituals.
By way of background, Dett grew up in Niagara Falls, graduated in 1908 from Oberlin College with a double degree in piano and composition, and complemented honorary doctorates in music from Howard University and Oberlin with a Master's degree from the Eastman School of Music. He also was a writer and poet of some merit, The Emancipation of Negro Music having won him a literary prize at Harvard in 1920. For his part, Erickson studied at The Juilliard School, Yale University, and Indiana University and in 2014 received his Doctorate at Temple University for research done on Dett's piano music. Drawing on that study, Erickson contributed detailed liner notes to the recording that in providing historical context and informed analysis bolster the listener's appreciation of the music.
Enhancing the recording's appeal is the fact that, the three closing pieces excepting, the collection is sequenced chronologically, which enables the listener to trace Dett's artistic evolution from his 1912 Magnolia suite to Eight Bible Vignettes, created during the last two years of his life. The material reflects a remarkable range of interests on Dett's part, with some of it reminiscent in style and character of Liszt and Rachmaninoff and some deeply grounded in spirituals, gospel, and folk. It's not uncommon for a piece to be both formal and conservatory-like as well as melodically direct and unadorned in its presentation (see “Barcarolle-Morning” from In The Bottoms as one example of many), and while a piece such as Enchantment might be nineteen minutes long, it's comprised of four song-length parts that makes them and Dett's lyrical music in general all the more accessible. With thirty-seven separate tracks appearing on the release, the listener is presented with an uncommonly rich assortment.
While the earliest composition, Magnolia, is characterized by a youthful spirit, Dett's lyrical gifts and melodic sophistication are already evident, nowhere more so than in the piano suite's dramatic title section and lullaby-styled “Mammy.” There's often a programmatic quality in play, such that “The Deserted Cabin” is as lonely and ponderous as its title would suggest whereas “My Lady Love” teems with rapturous joy. If In The Bottoms exudes a particularly pronounced folk character, it can be explained in part by Dett's desire to capture in his 1913 suite the experiences of Negro life in the American South (the exuberant “Dance-Juba,” for instance, is intended to capture the social life of the people).
Ten years on from Magnolia, Enchantment sees Dett pursuing a Romantic style (strongly evident during “Song of the Shrine”) whilst still adhering to the suite format. With three parts drawing for inspiration from poets (Donne, Tagore, Longfellow) and the fourth from Negro spirituals, Cinnamon Grove (1928) spotlights a more impressionistic, at times wistful side of the composer. By the time Tropic Winter arrives a decade later, Dett's exploring a bolder modernistic style that makes the innocence of Magnolia seem like the work of a far different composer; playfulness is still present (see “Pompons and Fans (Mazurka)” and “Parade of the Jasmine Banners”), but a hint of dissonance can be detected in the 1938 suite's “A Bayou Garden,” suggesting that he's maybe been monitoring the advances made by other composers. In Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43), whose movements relate to Biblical episodes in the Old and New Testaments, “Father Abraham” and “Other Sheep” are declamatory and majestic, whereas “As His Own Soul” and “Madrigal Divine” are gentler, even serene.Rather puzzlingly, the recording follows the final composed work with three youthful pieces, written a decade before Magnolia: not surprisingly, the light-hearted stride of “After the Cakewalk” and jubilant jaunt “Cave of the Winds” feel worlds away from Eight Bible Vignettes, though they're hardly objectionable for being so. Regardless of when they were composed, all of the performances are enhanced by Erickson's in-depth understanding, and, with considerable technical ability at his disposal, the pianist is more than up to the challenge of bringing the composer's material to life (anyone in need of proof on that count need look no further than “Dance of Desire” from Enchantment, whose high-velocity runs the pianist dispatches with seeming ease). My Cup Runneth Over succeeds as both a history lesson and musical collection in its own right, and Erickson's to be commended for reminding us of Dett's singular musical artistry and for allowing listeners to partake of the composer's gifts.