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Obscure Music Monday: Dett's In the Bottoms

Robert Nathaniel Dett  (Oct. 11, 1882 - Oct. 2, 1943) was a composer, pianist, organist, and professor of music. Born in Ontario, Canada, he showed interest in music at a young age, and began piano lessons at five years old. The family moved to New York around the time Dett was ten years old, and a few years later he was playing piano for his church. He would later on study at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music, and continued studying piano at the Lockport Conservatory, before eventually attend the Curtis Institute of Music. At Curtis, Dett was introduced to the idea of using spirituals in classical music, like in the music of Antonin Dvorak. The music Dett heard reminded him of spirituals he'd learned from his grandmother, and he'd later on integrate folksongs and spirituals in to his music.  

Comprised of five movement, In the Bottoms (subtitled "a characteristic suite for the piano") is about different scenes and moods for Black Americans living on the river bottoms of the United States south. It was written in 1913, and gained popularity after Percy Grainger performed it on several programs.

"Prelude: Night" begins the work, and starts of with several bars of half note chords. He incorporates parallel fifths to great effect, which are quickly followed by a descending chromatic octave theme, before branching out in to a syncopated rhythm theme.

"His Song" follows, and is a sorrowful work, not unlike a spiritual. There are dark, thick chords throughout the work that give it a deep sense of gravitas.

In the third movement "Honey," is much shorter than the rest, coming in at around a minute and a half. It has a cheerful theme that makes up much of the movement.

"Morning: Barcarolle" starts off with some hopeful sounding chords, with a syncopated theme following. There are several right hand runs that happen often over the left hand accompaniment, before the work turns to a descending theme in both hands. The syncopated rhythm that's heard early on is heard again, several times in the movement.

"Dance (Juba)" is named after a dance that slaves enjoyed, and was rooted in African music. A main rhythmic component in it is the eight note followed by two sixteenth notes, which you can hear throughout in the short movement. It's a jubilant and fun way to end the suite.

Here's a recording of this wonderful work for you to enjoy!

Clipper Erickson

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