Carlos Simon Presents REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED Album Review — Contemplations of American Slavery

Editor's Note - The World Premiere of Requiem for the Enslaved will be performed on Sunday, October 9th at 1:30pm

Where: Calderwood Hall, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts 

Carlos Simon

A small ensemble consisting of a violin, cello, clarinet, and flute delicately and mysteriously introduce a theme that feels inexplicably familiar.

Isaac, 65 years old
Charles, Isaac’s son, ran away…

A series of voices — accompanied by the ensemble, each taking their turn, sometimes overlapping and out of sync with the others — begin to introduce the names of some of the 272 enslaved men, women, and children who were sold by the founders of Georgetown University.

As the ensemble fades away, a trumpet and piano take their place, revealing why a certain tune was on the tip of our tongues: the narrators are now accompanied by When the Saints Go Marching In, played like a funeral dirge honoring those whose names are now echoing in our head:

Nellie, Isaac’s daughter, married off
Henry, Nellie’s daughter, 13 years old
Cecilia, Nellie’s daughter, 8 years old
Ruthie, Nellie’s daughter, 6 years old
Patrick, Isaac’s son, ran away…

As the trumpet and piano’s laments fade away and church bells continue to ring, the original ensemble and theme return. As their penultimate chord signals that the end of this modern requiem’s invocation is near, one of the narrators returns to emphasize the purpose of this solemn mass:

Eternal rest give unto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them

Carlos Simon

Carlos Simon’s Requiem for the Enslaved — commissioned by Georgetown University, where Simon is an assistant professor of composition — is a reminder of the humanity that was denied to those enslaved in the United States and that the work that needs to be done to right these wrongs is not yet over.

Simon continuously employs and reimagines When the Saints Go Marching In throughout Requiem for the Enslaved, grounding each moment in contemplation and remembrance, in this writer’s opinion. In moments of somber remembrance, and in moments of glorious redemption, we can listen for that familiar tune, whatever its current form, to guide us through the journey.

In III. we all found heaven, the quartet welcomes us for a moment of introspection, all playing a simplified version of When the Saints Go Marching In.

Marco Pavé, a hip-hop artist in residence at Georgetown, joins in spoken word, asking existential questions about the souls of those enslaved. The violin takes over the melody, thoughtful and reserved.

How does the soul feel about waiting with the slave,
Waiting for your birthright well after your birth?
Is that patience or something much worse?

Then, harmonies once unsure become confident, acknowledging a strength that persists in the face of all those unanswerable questions… but only for a moment. Pavé doesn’t leave us with an answer but instead with the result of all this waiting. The ensemble does the same, the movement left seemingly unresolved, their original uncertainty bubbling to the surface again:

At the bottom of patience… we all found heaven.

The tone immediately shifts in the following movement, IV. grant them rest. The lingering questions morph into retribution as Pavé is abandoned by the winds and we’re abandoned by our familiar tune, drowned out by the strings and their menacing drones, slides, and eighth note interjections.

May we grant them a higher reward than recognition of their humanity by barbaric humans…
May we dismantle the system built upon their backs…
May we grant my ancestors favor, spiritual immunity,
And may we grant them… rest.

Carlos Simon’s REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED Employs a Variety of Black American Musical Traditions

When the Saints Go Marching In evolves throughout the requiem, and after taking on the form of early jazz and then gospel in IX. shine upon them, the trumpet’s solo effortlessly transitions into the solemn last movement, X. in paradisium (into paradise) ashé.

Solo piano introduces the movement with an understanding and delicate bed of chords, reassuring the rest of the ensemble. They respond in turn with ethereal, undulating, effortlessly placed chords, free to make their voices heard through thoughtful interjections and responses. Pavé’s spoken word is firm and reassuring, offering hope and a final blessing to those who suffered at the hands of slavery. The ensemble fades into infinity as the piano, its final notes like stars twinkling in the heavens above, guides them on their way:

We are amongst the stars.
We are the stars, shining our light as the Lord intended…
The so-called masters unknowingly elevated the souls of their property,
While simultaneously building a tomb in Hell for themselves.

Carlos Simon

Requiem for the Enslaved is recommended to those seeking a contemplative journey, wanting to explore America’s past through music, or exploring the intersection of classical and quintessentially American music.


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Requiem for the Enslaved is available for streaming on Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify

Photos by Terrance Ragland courtesy of Unison Media

Francisco Gallardo

About the Author: Francisco Gallardo

Truly a jack of all trades (it’s boring being a master of one), you’ll find Francisco Gallardo playing the viola or guitar, preparing his next calligraphic work, coding up a helpful script, eating way too much sushi with the boys, or, more recently, trying his hand at writing and translation. Fortunately for him, “Hay más tiempo que vida”, so it’s only a matter of time before he finds something else to append to this list…

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