'12 Years a Slave' Composer Reveals the Challenges of Re-Creating Authentic Slave Songs
12 Years a Slave is a film rich in music. Its protagonist is a violinist forced into slavery, and he and his fellow slaves sing spiritual songs to make it through their arduous work in the fields.
Such songs were never recorded, so it became composer Nicholas Britell’s job to use the scarce information he could find to re-create authentic music to guide the characters in the film.
Britell studied at Harvard University and grew up playing classical piano. He has written in a variety of genres, including jazz, film musical, hip-hop, spiritual and gospel tradition, but his experience couldn’t have prepared him for the challenge of writing the authentic violin pieces and spiritual songs for the film.
Britell was charged with re-creating what the fiddle would have sounded like in the 1840s, at least 60 or 70 years before it was first recorded. This sent him to the library, where he pored over primary texts and the memoir of the enslaved violinist on which 12 Years a Slave is based.
"The process was starting with that question: 'What would Solomon Northup have been playing?' " Britell tells The Hollywood Reporter. "What would an African-American violinist have played in New York in 1841? Very specific questions to start with."
For each scene, Britell picked traditional fiddle tunes to rearrange or determined that he would write new music made to sound like it was from that era. He learned that a violinist from that time would have held the instrument lower slung on his shoulder and tuned it differently than he originally thought.
“There were many things that went into it to really capture the essence of what we imagine the sound would have been,” Britell says. “Ultimately, we’ll never really know but that was our best effort to imagine that sound.”
Once he determined the musical composition, Britell had to come up with the lyrics for the spiritual songs that the slaves sang as they worked. Spirituals from the 1840s weren’t documented during that time, and slave songs only began to be notated during the Civil War.
“This isn’t music sung in the church; there’s no piano to accompany people,” Britell says. “This is music actually done to get through the day that’s used to coordinate your movements while you’re performing a physical activity.”
In the opening scene of the film, a group of slaves learn to chop sugarcanes. Britell says it was important to match the flow and movement of the opening scene with his music.
“I felt such a huge responsibility,” Britell says. “Not only did I have to imagine the lyrics and the music properly, but the rhythm literally had to be matched to the activity.”
In writing the lyrics for “My Lord, Sunshine,” Britell imagined the influences that would help slaves get through their work in the fields. He says the lyrics came from two omnipresent elements: the biblical influences that would have been passed on to the slaves through their owners, and the sun.
“It was the same approach for all that music,” Britell says. “That really was an homage to the whole spiritual tradition to represent the moment when Solomon had essentially begun to resign himself to his fate.”
Britell rearranged or wrote the spiritual songs and the fiddle pieces that Northup plays through the film. “My Lord Sunshine” is being submitted for Oscar consideration.
“Roll Jordan Roll,” on the other hand, is a piece that Britell rearranged to fit the film.
“It is such a famous lyric and concept, so I started with that and wove together many different sources and musical elements into that new version for the scene,” Britell says. “It was very important to create a world that was very unique.”
Britell wrote the songs “My Lord, Sunshine,” “Cotton Song,” “Yarney’s Waltz,” “The Old Promenade,” “O Teach Me Lord” and “Roll Jordan Roll.” He arranged another four songs.
The composer says the experience of writing for the film was both wonderful and challenging, but that it was an honor to be a part of reimagining the music of the 1800s.
Says Brittell: “This is certainly the most challenging project to get right that I’ve ever been a part of and that I felt the most true sense of responsibility to really imagine it and re-create it and reconceive it as best as possible.”