Illustration from 1855 book
Twelve Years a Slave
by Solomon Northrup
Dominique-René de Lerma:
BEYOND THE BEAUTY OF THE SPIRITUAL
In 1893, Antonín Dvořák told Americans that, if they really wanted a national music, they must look to the spirituals, not to German models. He had followed the same path, seeking his own Czech voice. The first composer to heed this advice was Coleridge-Taylor, not an American, whose 24 Negro melodies, opus 59, included an elaboration of 15 spirituals he selected from the 1872 published repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the 1887 anthology issued in Boston by the Oliver Ditson Company, although it is certainly likely he had heard at least some of these in performance. It was the Ditson company that also published this collection of Coleridge-Taylor.
An employee of Ditson was William Arms Fisher (1861-1948) who, as a student of Dvořák at New York's National Conservatory of Music, took his teacher's words to heart, not only setting words to the principal theme of the slow movement of Dvořák's last symphony in 1922, but he appears to have been instrumental in publishing Coleridge-Taylor's treatment of these melodies.
We have read about the singers from Fisk University, some of whom had been slaves, who gave to the world America's most precious legacy, this country's true classical music. We have heard performances recorded by Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, and Paul Robeson. Some of us have been fortunate enough to have heard performances in recital by Leontyne Price and the artists who followed her. We have been moved by the settings of Harry Burleigh, Hall Johnson, Margaret Bonds and by more recent figures as André Thomas, Charles Lloyd, Robert Morris, and Moses Hogan. And we know what gave birth to this heritage, but it not enough to dismiss the slave era with that painless acknowledgement.
The Fugitive Slave Act in 1783 required all escaped slaves to be returned to their masters, following legal procedure, no matter if they sought freedom in states that had abolished slavery. Since slaves were not citizens, they could not serve on juries or be represented in court.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1842 that free states did not have to cooperate in the relocation of escaped slaves. But one year before this law was passed, Solomon Northup was kidnapped by slave hunters.
He had been born free in upstate New York, where he worked on his own farm. In 1834, he moved with his wife and three children to the fashionable resort of Saratoga Springs. He was employed in various positions, while Anne was engaged as a cook. Northup supplemented the family income as a violinist, and he was well known and admired for his musical ability.
In 1841 he met two men who offered him employment as a musician with a circus troupe. He joined them, traveling to Washington, looking forward to the new prospect.
Slavery, which had been abolished in New York, was yet legal in the national capitol. And here he was drugged and sold into slavery. He ended up in Bayou Beouf in Louisiana, purchased by Edwin Eppes. Not only was he witness to the vile treatment of the other slaves, he endured barbaric conditions on his own. It was not until 1853 that he was liberated, due to the extraordinary and complicated efforts of a visitor from Canada (where slavery had been abolished twenty years earlier) and the governor of New York State. In that year, again free, he published his memoirs, Twelve years a slave (Auburn NY: Derby & Miller), recounting in accurate detail the horrors he had seen and endured. Although his abductors were identified and brought to trial, they were never convicted. Nothing is known about Northup after 1863 when, age 45, he had been touring as lecturer in northeastern states.
His book became the basis for a film by photographer-composer Gordon Parks and, in 2013, for the award-winning and justly acclaimed film -- 12 years a slave, now available on DVD, with factual veracity carefully supervised in detail by Henry Lewis Gates.
One may avoid the film, but not escape this pervasive factor in Americn history; This country remains badly crippled thereby. As deeply disturbing as it is,viewing the film sets in clear relief those beastly circumstances from which the glory of the spiritual originated. Here in this inhumane horror the bitter truth of the spiritual is realized.
Before I'd be a slave ...
Dominique-René de Lerma