×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

’12 Years’ Co-composer Nicholas Britell Re-Creates Antebellum South

Spirituals and work songs from the period are artfully brought back to life

One of the most intriguing things about “12 Years a Slave” is the fact that its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a talented violinist. But Northup’s 1853 autobiography gives few clues to what he played, or what he heard during his nightmare decade in the antebellum South.

So director Steve McQueen asked New York composer Nicholas Britell to research the period and come up with songs that slaves might have sung and repertoire that Northup might have played. “It was an interesting historical and artistic challenge,” says Britell. “We don’t really know what the music of the 1840s sounded like.”

Britell took what few clues he could find in music libraries and, in addition to adapting some traditional 19th-century tunes (“Devil’s Dream,” “Miller’s Reel”), he himself composed the spirituals, work songs and dances that are heard in the film. “I felt a huge responsibility to make sure the music felt as true as possible,” he says.

So “My Lord Sunshine,” which is sung by slaves at the start of the film, is actually a Britell original, as are several of the spirituals (“Cotton Song,” “O Teach Me Lord,” a reconceptualization of the classic “Roll Jordan Roll”).” These were taught to the actors on the set. Britell’s violinist friend Tim Fain played the fiddle tunes that Northup is seen performing in the film.

“There are elements of church music, African rhythms, proto-blues,” Britell says. “I didn’t want it to sound like 20th-century gospel.”

Early rumors that Britell’s source music might overshadow the Hans Zimmer score appear to be unfounded: The score totals nearly 39 minutes while the Britell originals are less than 14; Britell’s songs are a possibility in the song competition, while Zimmer remains a contender for score.

More Music

  • 50 Cent Power

    NYPD Officer Under Investigation for Allegedly Telling Police to Shoot 50 Cent 'on Sight'

    A New York City precinct commander is under investigation for allegedly telling officers to shoot rapper 50 Cent on sight, a police rep confirmed to Variety on Sunday. “The matter is under internal review,” an NYPD rep said, declining to answer further questions. Deputy Inspector Emanuel Gonzalez is accused of telling officers during a June 7 roll [...]

  • Phoebe Bridgers Slams Ryan Adams’ ‘Network’

    Phoebe Bridgers Slams Ryan Adams’ ‘Network’ of Enablers

    Singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, one of multiple women who accused Ryan Adams of sexual misconduct last week in a New York Times article, issued a statement late Saturday slamming the “network” of people who enabled Adams’ behavior. “It’s been a weird week and I wanted to say a couple things,” she wrote on Instagram. “Thank you [...]

  • Bette Midler

    Bette Midler to Perform on the Oscars (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” at the Oscar ceremonies on Feb. 24, Variety has learned. Midler, a longtime friend of composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman, will sing the song originally performed by Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns.” The song, by Shaiman and his lyricist partner Scott Wittman, is one of five [...]

  • Kacey Musgraves, winner of the awards

    Kacey Musgraves to Present at the Oscars

    Hot off her album of the year award at last weekend’s Grammys, Kacey Musgraves has been tapped to present at the Oscars on Feb. 24, Variety has learned. She joins previously announced presenters Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Awkwafina, Daniel Craig, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Amandla Stenberg, Charlize Theron, Tessa Thompson, [...]

  • Olmo Teodoro Cuaron, Alfonso Cuaron and

    Alfonso Cuarón Tells Why His Scoreless 'Roma' Prompted an 'Inspired' Companion Album

    Back around the ‘90s, “music inspired by the film” albums got a bad name, as buyers tired of collections full of random recordings that clearly were inspired by nothing but the desire to use movie branding to launch a hit song. But Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Roma,” is determined to find some artistic validity [...]

  • Panic at the Disco Concert Review

    Concert Review: Panic! at the Disco Brings Theatrical Flair to Forum

    At one particularly crowd-pleasing point during Panic! at the Disco’s show Friday at the Forum, Brendon Urie played the group’s cover of one of the “Greatest Showman” songs, from the recent tribute album devoted to that film, and it’s not hard to see why he would gravitate to the musical. Urie’s so much of a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content